Let’s talk about this: what’s the best book you ever got — or gave — as a gift?

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This time of year, those of us who work with manuscripts for a living are inundated with questions from would-be Santas, ranging from the vague (“My co-worker loves to read — what should I get her?”) to the categorical (“What book should I give a 10-year-old boy?”) to the specific (“My best friend has read everything Maeve Binchy has ever written, and I’d love to introduce her to a new obsession. What author would you recommend?”) As flattering as such requests are, as a pro, my first instinct is to respond with a barrage of follow-up questions. What is the co-worker currently reading? What’s that 10-year-old like? What in particular about Mme. Binchy has captivated this friend?

Surprisingly often, the askers are taken aback by being expected to provide more information. Isn’t a great book a great book, period? Why wouldn’t any 10-year-old boy adore any well-written novel aimed at kids his age equally? Shouldn’t someone who works with books for a living just have a mental Rolodex of fabulous authors, cross-indexed by similarity to bestselling authors?

For those of you not already clutching your sides and screaming with laughter, the answers are: a great book for one reader will not be a great book for another; no, because kids have personal tastes — and personalities — just as adults do; why, yes, I do, but half the books on it have not yet been published. And in response to the implication that I’m just not trying hard enough, today alone I recommended Heidi Durrow’s stunning debut The Girl Who Fell From the Sky to an aspiring literary fiction author’s Secret Santa, William Gibson’s genre-shaping Neuromancer to a budding science fiction aficionado’s mom, William Pene Dubious charming The Twenty-One Balloons to an English professor at a loss about what to give his young nephew (oh, you would give ULYSSES to a 10-year-old?), and spent 45 minutes discussing how the Kindle’s ability to allow the reader to alter font, typeface, and orientation on the page changes the reader’s experience of writing patterns.

I’ve been on the job, in short. But now, I would like to hear your suggestions.

Rather than limiting what I hope will be a full and rich array of excellence across book categories, I’m going to keep it general: what was the best book you ever received as a gift, and why? Did you ever give the same book to somebody else, because it affected you so much, or did you hoard all of that literary goodness for yourself?

Or, for you inveterate book-givers, what is the best book you ever gave somebody else? How did you know it was the right book at the right time for that person?

I shall be looking forward to restocking my mental Rolodex with your marvelous suggestions. In the meantime, I’m going to get this laptop off my lap before my doctor notices. Keep up the good work!

Getting out of your protagonist’s head and into the — text?

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Sorry about the sporadic posts of late, campers — the Grumpy Relative’s health woes continue, and I’ve been trying to spend as much time with GR as humanly possible of late. Turns out that keyboards are surprisingly noisy when someone is trying to sleep.

Tonight, though, I may bang on the keys as much as I like. That’s fortunate, because I’ve been eager to get back to our ongoing discussion of techniques to tighten up a sluggish manuscript.

Standard disclaimer: because every manuscript is as different as the proverbial snowflake, there’s no way to come up with a list of pacing rules that applicable to every one. As I mentioned last time, every writer has preferred means of slowing down or speeding up text.

Thus my asking you to take marking pens to your manuscript. To identify what could use trimming, you need to recognize your particular writing patterns. So let’s get back to the nitty-gritty, shall we?

In my last post, I asked you — politely, I hope — to sit down with some of your favorite chapters throughout your book and differentiate by colored markings abstract vs. concrete statements of characterization.

You remember the difference, right? Abstract statements bottom-line a character’s ever-changing array of feelings, thoughts, actions: Pierre felt morose, Jerry was sexy, Maura was a tall, cool hunk of woman, etc. Such sentences can save a lot of time in a narrative, quickly providing the reader a sense of what’s going on and who is doing it.

Sometimes, that’s a technique that can come in very handy. When an action scene, for instance, suddenly requires fifteen thugs to jump Our Hero, describing each one individually and in a nuanced manner would slow the scene down to a crawl. Or in a scene where the action is pretty mundane, a swift summary statement like Bernadette spent the next fifteen hours yawning her way through book shelving can act like a fast-forward button for the narration.

By contrast, concrete characterization statements depict what a character is saying, doing, feeling, and so forth in a particular moment. In a story told primarily through concrete statements (and generally speaking, writing with a high concrete/abstract ratio is considered more stylistically polished), the narrative expects the reader to draw conclusions about what characters are like based upon an array of specific actions, feelings, words, and so forth, rather than simply providing a summary statement.

Sound familiar? It should: this is yet another manifestation of everyone’s favorite writing bugbear, the difference between showing and telling.

Obviously, every manuscript ever produced needs both, and the appropriate ratio of abstract to concrete varies quite a bit by genre. Think about it: could you really get away with a summary sentence like, “She had legs that stretched all the way from here to Kalamazoo,” in a genre other than hardboiled mystery, bless its abstraction-loving fan base? (All right, I’ll admit it: one of the all-time best compliments I have ever received came from a writer of hardboiled; he commented on a dress I was wearing by telling me, “You look like trouble in a B movie.” I cherish that.)

That’s one of the primary reasons agents and editors tend to expect aspiring and published writers alike to read a whole lot of recently-published books within the category they write, in case any of you conference-goers out there had been wondering: to gain a working sense of the abstract/concrete statement ratio habitual readers of that type of book will expect to see. (Some other popular reasons for keeping up with the latest releases: learning what that particular readership likes, figuring out what is and isn’t appropriate vocabulary for that specific readership, gaining currency with what’s being published right now, rather than in, say, 1858, and other practical benefits.)

Because, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as a chapter, paragraph, or even sentence that’s appropriate for every book in which the creative mind might choose to have it appear. Context matters — and so does book category.

How, you ask? Avoiding summary statements wherever possible may serve a high-end women’s fiction writer very well, for example, but actually harm certain types of genre novel. The rash of semicolons that might make an academic book look learned is unlikely to fly in a Western — but you’d be surprised how much more acceptable it would be in a science fiction novel. And while those of us devoted to literary fiction do occasionally marvel at a story intended exclusively for a college-educated readership (not a bad definition of literary fiction, incidentally) written in very simple language, the vocabulary range of most literary fiction is quite different from that of well-written YA.

And don’t even get me started on how much more acceptable rampant summary statements are in most types of nonfiction than in fiction. Memoirs in particular tend to rely upon them pretty heavily. (Why? Well, as a reader, how eager are you to hear every detail of what happened to even a very interesting real-life narrator over a two-year period? If a memoirist steers too clear of abstract statements like Auntie Mame’s My puberty was bleak, she’s going to end up expending quite a bit of precious page space on illustrating just how bleak it was, right?) There’s just no substitute for familiarity with one’s chosen book category.

Hey, here’s a hint to pass along to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: how about stuffing a grateful writer’s stocking with the five best books released within the last year in his or her book category?

(Note to those of you being driven mad by my frequent use of the term: there’s no such thing as a published book in the United States market that doesn’t fall into a particular book category, no matter how genre-busting it may be. That’s simply how publishers and booksellers think of books. For some tips on figuring out which conceptual container might best house your manuscript for marketing purposes, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES posts on the archive list at right.)

So much for my carefully non-judgmental speech on the subject of abstract vs. concrete statements. That being said, however, it is worth noting that on any given reading day, the average agent, editor, or contest judge sees a whole lot more summary sentences in the course of any given day of manuscript-screening than concrete ones.

Which, obviously, can render a genuinely original telling detail quite a refreshment for weary professional eyes. So, generally speaking, if you can increase the frequency with which such concrete details appear, you’ll be better off in most types of submission.

Ready to take gander at the ratio in what you’ve been submitting — or are planning to submit to professional scrutiny anytime soon? Fantastic. Let’s go ahead and dig up those yellow-and-red pages from last time. But this time grab a third color of pen –- let’s say green, and complete the Rastafarian triumvirate — and…

1. Mark all the sentences where your protagonist (or any other character whose thoughts are audible to the reader) THINKS a response to something that has just happened, instead of saying it aloud or the narrative’s demonstrating the reaction indirectly.

These kinds of sentences are hard to show out of context, so bear with me through a small scene. The sentences destined for marker overcoats are in caps:

I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE SAID THAT, BERTRAND THOUGHT.

WHY WASN’T HE ANSWERING? “What’s wrong?” Emintrude asked, rubbing her tennis-sore ankles. “Are you feeling sick to your stomach again?”

OH, WOULD ONLY THAT HIS ONGOING DISSATISFACTION WITH THEIR MARRIAGE STEMMED FROM A SOURCE AS SIMPLE AS NAUSEA. WAS HIS WIFE HONESTLY SO SOULLESS THAT SHE COULDN’T FEEL THEIR WELL-MANICURED LAWN CREEPING UP THE DOORSTEP TO SMOTHER THEM IN SEDUCTIVE NORMALCY? “No,” Bertrand said. “I just had a long day at work.”

Remember, you’re not judging the quality of writing by determining what to highlight, or sentencing any given observation to the chopping block by marking it. You are simply making patterns in the text more visible.

Finished? Okay, now humor me a little and get a fourth color of pen — purple, anyone? — and…

2. Mark any sentence where your protagonist’s reactions are conveyed through bodily sensation of some sort. Or depicted by the world surrounding him, or through some other concrete detail.

You’re probably going to find yourself re-marking some of the red sentences from last time around, but plow ahead nevertheless, please.

Starting to notice some narrative patterns? Expressing character reaction via physicality or projection is a great way to raise the telling little detail quota in your manuscripts.

Does this advice seem familiar? It should, for those of you who regularly attend writing workshops or have worked with an editor. It is generally expressed by the terse marginal admonition, “Get out of your character’s head!”

I wish feedback-givers would explain this advice more often; too many writers read it as an order to prevent their characters from thinking. But that’s not what “Get out of your character’s head!” means, at least not most of the time. Generally, it’s an editor’s way of TELLING the writer to stop telling the reader about the character’s emotional responses through dialogue-like thought. Instead, (these feedback-givers suggest) SHOW the emotion through details like bodily sensation, noticing a telling detail in the environment that highlights the mood, or…

Well, you get the picture. It’s yet another way that editors bark at writers, “Hey, you: show, don’t tell!”

What will happen to your manuscript if you take this advice to heart? Well, among other things, it will probably be more popular with professional readers like our old pal, Millicent the agency screener — because, believe me, protagonists who think rather than feel the vast majority of the time disproportionately people the novels submitted to agencies and publishing houses. And when I say vast majority of the time, I mean in practically every submission they receive.

To put it bluntly, a novel that conveys protagonist response in other ways a significant proportion of the time will enjoy the advantage of surprise.

Why are characters who think their responses — essentially summarizing what they might have said or done in response instead of saying or doing it — so VERY common, especially in memoir? One theory is that we writers are so often rather quiet people, more given to thinking great comebacks than saying them out loud. (A girl’s best friend is her murmur, as Dorothy Parker used to say.) Or maybe we just think our protagonists will be more likable if they think nasty things about their fellow characters, rather than saying them out loud.

That, or there are a whole lot of writers out there whose English teachers made them read HAMLET one too many times, causing them to contract Chronic Soliloquization Disorder.

Whichever it is, most submissions in practically every book category would be better received by Millicent if they exhibited this type of writing less. Done with care, avoiding long swathes of thought need not stifle creative expression.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s revisit our little scene of domestic tranquility from above, this time grounding the characters’ reactions in the flesh and the room:

By the time Ermintrude was midway through her enthusiastic account of the office party, Bertrand’s stomach had tied itself into the Gordian knot. The collected swords of every samurai in the history of Japan would have been helpless against it.

“Bertrand!” Ermintrude’s back snapped into even greater perpendicularity to her hard chair. “You’re not listening. Upset tummy again?”

He could barely hear her over the ringing of his ears. He could swear he heard their well-manicured lawn creeping up the doorstep to smother them in seductive normalcy. The very wallpaper seemed to be gasping in horror at the prospect of having to live here any longer. “No,” Bertrand said. “I just had a long day at work.”

See the difference? The essentials are still here, just expressed in a less obviously thought-based manner.

Go back and take another look at your marked-up manuscript. How green is it? How heavy purple is that prose?

Sorry; I couldn’t resist setting you up for that one.

No, but seriously, it’s a good question: all of the types of sentence you just identified are in fact necessary to a successful narrative, so ideally, you have ended up with a very colorful sheaf of paper. Using too many of one type or another, believe it or not, can be boring for the reader, just as using the same sentence structure over and over lulls the eye into skimming.

If you doubt this, try reading a government report sometime. One declarative sentence after another can be stultifying for the reader.

The telling details of your manuscript will be nestled in those red- and purple-marked sentences – note how frequently they appear in your chapters. If you find more than half a page of yellow and/or green between patches of darker colors, you might want to go back and mix up your abstract/concrete ratio more.

If you find any pages that are entirely yellow and/or green, I would suggest running, not walking, to the nearest used bookstore, buying three or four battered paperback editions of books that sell well in your chosen genre, and carting them home to perform the four-marker experiment on them. Could you revise your manuscript so that the color ratio in it replicates that in those books?

Yes, this is a time-consuming exercise, now that you mention it. A test like this is rather nerve-wracking to apply to your own work, but it’s a great way to start getting in the habit of being able to see your pages as someone who does not know you might. (If you want to get a REALLY clear sense of it, trade chapters with a writer you trust, and apply the same experiment.)

Stellar self-editing takes bravery, my friends – but I know you’re up to it. Keep up the good work!

Pitching 101, part XXIII and Writers’ Conferences 101, part III: the bare necessities of pitching — and no, I’m not just talking about 3 lines scrawled on the back of a business card

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I honestly am trying to wrap up our weeks-long series on formal and informal pitching, but the fact is, if I’m going to talk about getting the most out of (often quite expensive) writers’ conferences, it only makes sense to give a few more practical tips on pitching while I’m at it. So please bear with the absurdly long and complicated titles for a while: labeling discussions as series makes it easier for late-joining readers to follow them in the archives, I’ve found.

Since we’ve all been so very good for so very long, I have a fun-but-practical topic for today: what materials should you bring with you to a conference — and, more importantly, to your pitch sessions with agents and editors? Other than good, strong nerves, an iron stomach, and faith that your book is the best literary achievement since MADAME BOVARY, of course.

At minimum, you’re going to want a trusty, comfortable pen and notebook with a backing hard enough to write upon, to take good notes. You’ll also want to bring all of the paperwork the conference organizers sent you, including a copy of your conference registration, information about your agent and/or editor appointments, and tickets to any dinners, luncheons, etc. for which you may have paid extra. (As, alas, one almost invariably does now at literary conferences. I can remember when rubber chicken banquets were thrown in gratis, and folks, I’m not that old.)

I’m already sensing some shifting in chairs out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” those of you new to writing great big checks to conference organizers protest, “why would I need to burden myself with all of that paperwork? I already signed up for those events, as well as my pitch appointments. Won’t the conference folks have all that on file?”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, but not necessarily. Remember, most writers’ conferences are organized by hard-working volunteers, not crack teams of hyper-efficient event organizers assisted by an army of support staff with Krazy Glue on their fingertips. Details occasionally fall through the cracks.

So it’s not very prudent to assume that your paperwork has not been crack fodder — or even that the selfless volunteers working the registration tables will have access to their computers to double-check what you paid to attend. Few literary conferences are held in the offices or homes of the organizers, after all, and while being able to get into the dinner where you paid $60 to hear the keynote speaker may be vitally important to you, the volunteers on site will probably neither have the time nor the inclination to run home to double-check a misprinted list of attendees.

All of which is to say: if you registered electronically, make sure to bring a hard copy of the confirmation. And if everything goes perfectly when you check in, please remember to thank the volunteer who helped you.

As my grandmother used to say: manners cost nothing.

While you’re printing things out, go ahead and produce a hard-copy confirmation of your hotel reservation as well, if you’re not attending a conference that permits you to sleep in your own bed at night. Again, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it is not at all unheard-of for a hotel hosting a conference to over-book.

Also, it’s a good idea to bring a shoulder bag sturdy enough to hold all of the handouts you will accumulate and books you will buy at the conference. This is not an occasion for a flimsy purse. Think grad student backpack, not clutch bag.

Don’t underestimate how many books you may acquire. It’s rare that a literary conference doesn’t have a room devoted to convincing you to buy the collected works of conference speakers, local writers, and the folks who organized the conference. (At the Conference That Shall Not Be Named, for instance, only organization members’ and conference presenters’ work are typically featured.)

Don’t expect to receive discounts on those books, however; because the conference typically gets a cut of sales, offering a members’ discount seldom seems to occur to organizers. On the bright side, it’s usually child’s play to get ‘em signed. Even if the author is not hovering hopefully behind a pile of his literary output, if he’s at the conference at all, he’s going to be more than happy to autograph it.

Don’t be shy about walking up to ‘em in hallways and after speeches to ask; this is basic care and feeding of one’s readership. And if you’re polite about it — introducing yourself by saying how much you loved the author’s latest work and/or speech last night, perhaps, or via the Magic First Hundred Words — who knows? You might just end up with a marvelous literary friend.

Which is one of the reasons you signed up to go to a conference in the first place, right?

Do be aware, though, that when major bookstore chains organize these rooms (and at large conferences, it’s often a chain like Barnes & Noble), they often take an additional payment off the top, so a self-published author may well make less per book in such a venue. And if an author with a traditional publisher has shown up with her own copies, purloined from the sometimes generous stash of promotional copies publishers often provide authors because the expected copies did not show up on time for the conference (yes, it happens), the sales may not count toward official sales totals.

This is not to say that you should hesitate to purchase a book from the writer with whom you’ve been chatting in the book room for the last half an hour. You should. However, if the book is self-published, you might want to ask the author if s/he would prefer for you to buy it elsewhere. Generally, authors will be only too glad to steer you in the right direction.

Speaking of requests folks in the industry are thrilled to get, if you are struck by a particular agent or editor, you can hardly ask a more flattering question than, “So, are there any books for sale here that you worked upon? I’d like to read a couple, to get a sense of your taste/style/why on earth anyone would want to spend years on end editing books about horses and flamingos.”

Hard for even the surliest curmudgeon scowling at early morning light not to be pleased by that question.

By the way, at a conference that offers an agents’ or editors’ panel (and most do), do not even CONSIDER missing it. Attendees are expected to listen to what the agents and editors are seeking at the moment and — brace yourself for this — note where it does not match what was said in the conference guide blurb or on the agents’ websites.

Oh, did I forget to tell you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Tastes change. So does the market. But blurbs tend to get reused from year to year. Even the standard agency guides, resources that actually are updated yearly, often don’t represent what any given member agent wants right this minute.

No comment — except to say that you will be a much, much happier camper if you keep an ear cocked during the agents’ and editors’ fora to double-check that the agent to whom you were planning to pitch a vampire romance isn’t going around saying, “Heavens, if I see ONE more vampire romance…”

In addition to noting all such preferences in my trusty notebook, I always like to carry a few sheets of blank printer paper in my bag, so I can draw a diagram of the agents’ forum, and another of the editors’, to keep track of who was sitting where and note a few physical characteristics, along with their expressed preferences in books.

Why do I do this? Well, these fora are typically scheduled at the very beginning of the first full day of the conference — a very, very long day.

By the time people are wandering into their appointments at the end of the second day, dehydrated from convention hall air and overwhelmed with masses of professional information, I’ve found that they’re often too tired to recall WHICH editor had struck them the day before as someone with whom to try to finagle a last-minute appointment.

Being able to whip out the diagrams has jogged many a memory, including mine. It’s also a great help a month or two after the conference, to help you remember which of the dozen agents who spoke struck you as worthwhile to query instead of pitching, and which left you with the impression that they eat books, if not aspiring writers, for breakfast.

On my diagrams, the latter tend to be depicted with horns, pitchfork, and tail. But that’s just me.

I always, always, ALWAYS advise writers to bring bottled water to conferences — even to ones where the organizers tend to be very good about keeping water available. A screw-top bottle in your bag can save both spillage and inconvenience for your neighbors.

Why? Well, when you’re wedged into the middle of a row of eager note-takers in a classroom, it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to make your way to the table with the pitcher on it, nor to step over people’s legs with a full glass in your hand.

If I seem to be harping on the dehydration theme, there’s a good reason: every indoor conference I have ever attended has dried out my contact lenses, and personally, I prefer to meet people when my lenses are not opaque with grime.

I’m wacky that way.

If your eyes dry out easily, consider wearing your glasses instead. Men may not make passes at girls who wear ‘em, to paraphrase the late great Ms. Parker, but looking bookish is seldom a drawback at a writers’ conference.

Even if you have perfect vision, there’s a good reason to keep on sippin’. If you are even VAGUELY prone to nerves — and who isn’t, while preparing to pitch? — being dehydrated can add substantially to your sense of being slightly off-kilter. You want to be at your best. Lip balm can be helpful in this respect, too.

Both conferences and hotels, like airports, see a lot of foot traffic, so the week leading up to the conference is NOT the time to skip the vitamins. I go one step further: at the conference, I dump packets of Emergen-C into my water bottle, to keep my immune system strong.

If this seems like frou-frou advice, buttonhole me at a conference sometime, and I’ll regale you with stories about nervous pitchers who have passed out in front of agents. Remember, if you find yourself stressed out:

*Take deep breaths. Not just every so often, but on a regular basis.

*Don’t lock your knees when you’re standing. People who do tend to fall over.

*If you need to sit down, say so right away, no matter who happens to be standing in front of you. Trust me, that editor from Random House doesn’t want to have to pick you up off the floor.

*Don’t drink too much coffee, tea, or alcohol. (Even though everyone else will be doing so with enthusiasm.)

*Go outside the conference center every so often. A glimpse of blue sky can provide a lot of perspective.

*Make some friends. You’ll have more fun, and you can meet in the hallway later to swap notes about seminars happening simultaneously.

*If you’re feeling nervous or scared, talk about it with some nice person you met in the hallway, rather than keeping it bottled inside.

*Be willing to act as someone else’s sounding board. Just for the karma.

Trust me, this is a time to be VERY good to yourself. A conference should not be an endurance test. If I had my way, the hallways at any pitching conference would be lined with massage chairs, to reduce people’s stress levels.

While I’m sounding like your mother, I shall add: don’t try to pitch on an empty stomach.

I’m VERY serious about this — no matter how nervous you are, try to eat something an hour or so before your pitch appointment. When I ran the Pitch Practicing Palace (a safe space for those new to the game to run their pitches by agented writers BEFORE trying them out on an agent or editor, to weed out potential problems), I used to keep a bowl of candy on hand, because so few pitchers had remembered to feed themselves.

Trust me, even if your stomach is flipping around like the Flying Wallendas on speed, you’ll feel better if you eat something. If you are anticipating doing a lot of hallway pitching, or dislike the type of rubber chicken and reheated pasta that tends to turn up on conference buffets, you might want to conceal a few munchies in your bag, to keep yourself fueled up.

It’s also not a bad idea to bring along some mints or ginger candy, just in case you start to feel queasy. As a fringe benefit, the generous person with the tin of Altoids tends to be rather popular in the waiting area near the pitching appointments.

Since you will most likely be sitting on folding chairs for many, many hours over the course of the conference, you might want to bring a small pillow. I once attended a conference where instead of tote bags, the organizers distributed portable seat cushions emblazoned with the writers’ organization’s logo.

You should have heard the public rejoicing.

In the spirit of serious frivolity, I’m going to make another suggestion: carry something silly in your bag, a good-luck charm or something that will make you smile when your hand brushes against it. It can work wonders when you’re stressed, to have a concealed secret.

Honest, this works. I used to advise my university students to wear their strangest underwear on final exam day, for that reason — it allowed them to know something that no one else in the room knew.

(It also resulted in several years’ worth of students walking up to me when they turned in their bluebooks and telling me precisely what they were wearing under those athletic department sweats — and, on one memorable occasion, showing me, à la Monica Lewinsky. So I say from experience: resist the urge to share; it’s disconcerting to onlookers.)

If you suspect you would be uncomfortable wearing your 20-year-old Underroos or leather garter belt (sorry; you’re going to have to find your own link to that) under your conference attire, a teddy bear in your bag can serve much the same purpose. Anything will do, as long as it is special to you.

So far, my advice has been concerned with your comfort and welfare. From here on out, the rest of today’s tips will be all about networking.

That’s right, I said networking. Conferences are about CONFERRING, people.

Because you will, we hope, be meeting some God-awfully interesting at your next writers’ conference, you will want to bring some easily transferable pieces of paper with your contact information printed on it: a business card, for instance, or comparably sized sheets from your home printer.

I mention this now, so you may prepare in advance. Having to scrabble around in your tote bag for a stray scrap of paper upon which to inscribe your vitals every time you meet someone nice gets old FAST.

Besides, if you file a Schedule C to claim your writing as a business, the cost of having the cards made is usually tax-deductible – and no, in the US, you don’t necessarily have to make money as a writer in every year you file a Schedule C for it. Talk to a tax advisor experienced in working with artists. Heck, all of those books you buy might just be deductible as market research.

Seriously, it is VERY worth your while to have some inexpensive business cards made, to print some up at home, or to ask Santa to bring you some professional-looking jobs for Christmas. First, it’s always a good idea to be able to hand your contact info to an agent or editor who expresses interest in your work. They don’t often ask for it, but if they do — in a situation, say, where an editor from a major press who is not allowed to pick up an unagented book REALLY wants to hook you up with an agent — it’s best to be prepared.

Second, unless you make a point of sitting by yourself in a corner for the entire conference, you are probably going to meet other writers that you like — maybe even some with whom you would like to exchange chapters, start a writers’ group, or just keep in contact to remind yourself that we’re all in this together.

The easier you make it for them to contact you, the more likely they are to remain in contact. It’s just that simple.

I’m sensing some ambient rustling again. “But Anne,” some rustlers exclaim, “I’m going to the conference to meet folks in the industry who can help me get my work published. Why would I waste my time chatting up other aspiring writers, who are ostensibly there for precisely the same reason?”

A very good question, oh rustlers, and one that deserves a very direct answer: because it’s far from a waste of time.

Besides, avoiding the unpublished is just a wee bit snobbish, I think. I would urge you to avoid the extremely common mistake of walking into ANY writers’ gathering thinking that the only people it is important for you to meet are the bigwigs: the agents, the editors, the keynote speakers. It requires less energy to keep to yourself, true, but it is a tad elitist, not to say short-sighted: in the long run, casting a wider acquaintance net will pay off better for you.

Why? For one very, very simple reason: the more writer friends you have, the easier it is to learn from experience.

Why make your own mistakes, when you can learn from your friends’, and they from yours? What better source for finding out which agents are really nice to writers, and which are not? And who do you think is going to come to your book signings five years from now, if not that nice writer with whom you chatted about science fiction at lunch?

Obviously, if you can swing a one-on-one with the keynote speaker, go for it — I once spent several hours stranded in a small airport with Ann Rule, and she is an absolutely delightful conversationalist. (Especially if you happen to have an abnormally great interest in blood spatter patterns; she’s a well-respected expert on the subject.)

But try not to let star-watching distract you from interacting with the less well-known writers teaching the classes — who are there to help YOU, after all — or the writer sitting next to you in class. I have met some of the best writers I know by the simple dint of turning to the person rummaging through the packaged teas on the coffee table and saying, “So, what do you write?”

Don’t tell me that you’re too shy to handle this situation — I happen to know that you have a secret weapon. Remember those magic first hundred words? This is the time to use ‘em.

Believe me, it’s worth doing. Someday, some of your fellow conference attendees are going to be bigwigs themselves — realistically, can you rule out the possibility that the person sitting next to you in the session on writer’s block ISN’T the next Stephen King? — and don’t you want to be able to say that you knew them when?

And even if this were not true (but it is), writing is an isolating business — for every hour that even the most commercially successful writer spends interacting with others in the business, she spends hundreds alone, typing away. The more friends you can make who will understand your emotional ups and downs as you work through scenes in a novel, or query agents, or gnaw your fingernails down to the knuckle, waiting for an editor to decide whether to buy your book, the better, I say.

Even the most charmed writer, the one with both the best writing AND the best pure, dumb luck, has days of depression. Not all of us are lucky enough to live and work with people who appreciate the necessity of revising a sentence for the sixth time. Writers’ conferences are the ideal places to find friends to support you, the ones you call when your nearest and dearest think you are insane for sinking your heart and soul into a book that may not see print for a decade.

So stuff some business cards into your conference bag along with a folder containing several copies of your synopsis AND five copies of the first five pages of your book, as a writing sample.

Why five pages, specifically? Well, not all agents do this, but many, when they are seriously taken with a pitch, will ask to see a few pages on the spot, to see if the writing is good enough to justify the serious time commitment of reading the whole book.

Having these pages ready to whip out at a moment’s notice will make you look substantially more professional than if you blush and murmur something about printing it out, or simply hand the agent your entire manuscript.

Don’t, however, bother to bring your entire manuscript with you to the conference, UNLESS you are a finalist in one of the major categories. You will never, ever, EVER miss an opportunity by offering to mail or e-mail it instead.

In fact, agents almost universally prefer it. This is often true, bizarrely, even if they insist that they want to read it on the airplane home.

Why the exception for the contest finalists? Well, I don’t think it should come as much of a surprise to anyone that agents tend to be pretty competitive people. The primary reason that an agent would ask for the whole thing right away, in my experience, is if he is afraid that another agent at the conference will sign you before he’s had a chance to read it — and the writers who tend to be the objects of such heart-rending scenes of jealousy are almost invariably those sporting blue ribbons.

So while I have known agents to read a chapter or two of the winners’ work in their hotel rooms, the chances of its happening in the normal run of a pitch day are roughly the same as finding the complete skeleton of a dinosaur in your back yard.

It could happen — but it doesn’t really make sense to plan your life around a possibility that remote.

Otherwise, don’t hurt your back lugging the manuscript box around; the sample will do just as well. And no, don’t bother to bring an electronic copy of your book — it’s actually considered rather rude to hand out CD-ROMs willy-nilly.

Why? Well, because not everyone is as polite as my lovely readers. It’s not at all uncommon for a total stranger to come charging up to an agent, editor, or someone like yours truly at a conference, shove a soft copy into our astonished hands, and disappear, calling back over her retreating shoulder, “My contact information’s on there, so you can let me know what you think of it.”

Without exception, electronic media presented in this manner ends up in the trash, unread.

Why? Well, apart from the general impoliteness involved in insisting that just because someone is in the industry, s/he has an obligation to read every stranger’s work, there’s also the very real risk that a stranger’s disk is going to be infected with a computer virus; it would be rather imprudent even to try to check out its contents.

Even if the recipient happened to have a really, really good firewall, this method also conveys a tacit expectation that the recipient is going to go to the trouble and expense of printing the book out — or risk considerable eyestrain by reading an entire book onscreen. Not very likely.

These days, if an agent or editor wants an electronic copy of your book, s/he will ask you to e-mail it. Trust me on this one.

Regardless, your 5-page sample should be in hard copy. If you feel that an excerpt from the end of the book showcases your work better, use that, but if you can at all manage it, choose the first five pages of the book as your sample — it just exudes more confidence in your writing, as these are the first pages a screener would see in a submission.

From the writer’s POV, the sole purpose of the writing sample is to get the agent to ask you to send the rest of the book, so although I hammer on this point about twice a month here, I’m going to say it again: as with everything else you submit to any industry pro, make sure that these pages are impeccably written, totally free of errors, and in standard format.

Seriously, this is not a moment when you want your pages to cry out, “The author’s unfamiliar with the standards of the industry!”

If the fact that there IS a standard format for manuscripts — and that it does NOT resemble the formatting of published books — is news to you, rush into the archives at right immediately, and take a gander at the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right. Even if you’re relatively sure you’re doing it right, it isn’t a bad idea to double-check.

Stop groaning, long-time readers; we all could use a refresher from time to time. As long as I am writing this blog, no reader of mine is going to have his or her work rejected simply because s/he didn’t know what the rules of submission were.

Again, I’m funny that way.

Keep practicing those pitches, everyone, avoid dehydration like the plague, and keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part X: where you stand depends on where you sit, sometimes literally

In my last post, I lingered on the desirability of making physical space in your home — or somewhere else, if you can afford separate office space — specifically dedicated to writing. Like playing the same music every time you sit down to write, lighting your desk area more brightly than the rest of the house in midwinter, or painting your kneecaps bright green as a pre-writing ritual, setting aside a space where you do nothing but write can be very helpful in fending off writer’s block, seasonally-induced or otherwise.

Why, you ask? Well, like the other sensual cues mentioned last time, walking into a dedicated writing environment makes the transition from mundane (non-writing) time to creative time clear to not only your daytimer, but to your body. Just as nice, clean towels coming out of the dryer tell my cats that it’s time to curl up and have a nap, walking into my writing space tells me that it’s time to get to work.

You can TELL your body that it’s time to write until you’re blue in the face, but let’s face it, we’re animals at base, and creatures of habit to boot. That pancreas of yours will need a non-verbal hint or two, and when’s the last time your T2 vertebra listened to reason?

You’ve probably already noticed the stimulus-bodily reaction phenomenon manifesting in less positive ways. The body’s no fool. When you have a job you hate, merely walking into the building raises your stress levels markedly, doesn’t it? The smell of baking bread or cookies cheers most people up, regardless of what else is going on, and incessant holiday music following one from store to store so stuns the nervous system after a while that one begins to buy frantically in self-defense, just to get out of there.

(No one can tell me that last effect isn’t calculated. I was in a children’s choir for many years, doomed to wander puckishly from rest home to shopping mall to stage to insane asylum all throughout the holiday season, piping carols at the top of our childish voices. The sounds we were yelping were generally considered high-quality, but let me tell you, spectators’ eyes glaze over like Santa’s swimming pool before the end of the second verse of even the most beautifully-rendered carol. They’ve been hypnotized by sheer repetition.)

Having a dedicated space usually helps with that other common writerly tendency, jumping up after only a minute or two to do something else. The less comfortable your writing area, the more likely that urge is to overwhelm you.

(Confidential to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver who might still be snuffling around for meaningful means to mark a Hanukkah evening: have you considered giving an office chair with really good back support? Not a generic office chair, but one that fits the writer’s body specifically? Or a copy of THE NOW HABIT, psychologist Neil Fiore’s excellent and accessible book on breaking procrastination patterns?)

A solid fit between computer user and furniture can help avoid all kinds of writing-delaying problems, as many of us now know to our cost. Business offices are notorious for trying to force every body type into identical chairs, as are colleges. When I was an undergraduate, my college saw fit to equip each and every dorm room with large, square wooden desk chairs like the one above, emblazoned with the school’s insignia — so, you know, if we forgot the school’s motto, we could just turn around and read it. My friends who happened to be 6’2” hockey players claimed that the chairs were most comfortable.

Everyone else ended up with sore backs and overworked arms. And in my day, whippersnappers, those chairs did not come equipped with that festive pillow, so after an hour or two of studying, what I shall delicately call the end of the spine began to complain as well.

Perhaps because there is no such thing as a good, supportive one-size-fits-all desk chair, one can surprisingly often find quite decent barely-used ones at thrift stores, I’ve noticed. You may need to canvas your entire city to find one that suits you and take a carpet-cleaner to it before you use it, but the eye-popping discounts are often worth it.

To return to my previous point: once you have established a space, song, lighting condition, specific chair, etc. as THE signal to begin serious writing, your body will soon come to understand that it’s time to stop distracting you with minor matters like the desire to eat, sleep, or have meaningful human contact and get down to work. Perhaps equally important, having a dedicated space — particularly one with a door that closes firmly on loved ones’ noses — tells everyone else in your household that you are not to be disturbed.

So it’s not only your habits that we’re hoping to recondition here. When intensive writing schedules work, EVERYONE in the household is cooperating to make that happen, starting in babyhood.

Oh, you laugh, but having grown up in a family of writers, I can tell you with absolute confidence: a career writer’s kid learns to go to sleep by the sound of typing (and speaking of conditioned reflexes, the sound of a manual typewriter still makes me distinctly sleepy). To this day, I seldom raise my voice above quiet conversational level, lest there be someone writing in the next room.

It’s habit, like everything else.

It’s also absolutely necessary, incidentally, for the household of a writer working on a deadline — and lest your kith and kin be harboring any fond illusions on the subject, the more successful you are as a author, the more deadlines you are going to have and the tighter they are going to be. It’s just a fact that at some point, no matter how nice a successful writer is, s/he is going to have to say to loved ones, “My writing needs to be my #1 priority right now. Which, by definition, places your needs slightly lower on the list.”

And mean it. So why not avoid the proverbial Christmas rush and start getting your kith and kin in the habit of hearing it now?

Did the last few paragraphs make you a trifle uncomfortable? If so, you’re certainly not alone: many writers are too sweet-tempered or too responsible or too habit-bound or just to gosh darned nice to expect their family members to change ANYTHING about THEIR schedules in order to make room for Mama or Papa or Sissy’s writing. Mama or Papa or Sissy simply give up sleep or recreation or dating in order to finish that book in spare moments when nobody else is making demands upon their time; Mama, more often than not, trains herself to drop her train of thought in mid-sentence the nanosecond anything remotely resembling a request for assistance or care falls upon her distracted ear.

Since this is the season of giving, may I suggest that this would be an excellent time to reexamine that attitude just a little?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that writers’ children should be taught to stifle their cries over their bleeding, severed limbs (although admittedly, writers’ kids of my generation often did). I’m merely throwing out the notion that everyone in the household might make supporting the writing project a top priority on an ongoing basis, rather than leaving the poor writer to struggle with trying to carve out time and space alone.

Why, yes, you may pause in your perusal of this post at this point to read that last bit out loud to your significant other, children, upstairs neighbor, or dog. I’m perfectly happy to wait. Tell ‘em it’s my idea, not yours.

While I’m being subversive — and to wrap up my series on gifts that the average writer would love to receive — FNDGG, why not give the writer in your life the gift of TIME TO WRITE on a regular basis?

After all, a few hours a week is a gift that even fairly small children could give to an overworked writer-parent. Maybe Santa could be induced to whisper some suggestions during that usually one-way communication on his lap; I know many, many writers to whom a pack of hand-made gift certificates, each good for an hour of uninterrupted time, would be the best stocking-stuffer EVER.

Monetarily, it would be hard to find a less expensive present — or New Year’s resolution, for that matter. In most aspiring writers’ households, though, it would require some fairly significant reshuffling of priorities to institute.

Which brings me to another very, very good reason that you might want to speak up about desiring dedicated time and space now, rather than holding your tongue until the happy day that you land an agent, sign a book contract, or see your nom de plume jauntily topping the New York Times’ bestseller list. Remember how I mentioned at Thanksgiving time that the vast majority of North Americans have absolutely no idea how books come to be published or how long it typically takes? Until they see the bound volume for sale at Borders or Chapters, even the most habitually kind and considerate of these well-meaning souls is prone — nay, likely — to express puzzlement and even disappointment at the most exciting tidings falling from their writer friends’ lips.

It’s usually expressed through hoping they’ve misunderstood you. “You signed with an agent?” they will say, uncomprehending smiles playing about their faces. “Great — when is the book coming out?”

They don’t do it to hurt you, honestly: they just don’t understand how many stages (or how much work) is involved in shepherding a book from first bright idea to successful publication. Or even unsuccessful publication. From the outside, a writer who isn’t being paid to sit and tap at a keyboard can look an awful lot like an unusually obsessed hobbyist nursing repetitive strain injuries.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because practically everyone in the English-speaking world, or at any rate English-reading one, mistakenly believes that when a genuinely gifted writer adds the last bon mot to any book worth reading, agents, editors, and scouts for the Oprah Winfrey show magically and spontaneously appear on his or her (usually his, in this fantasy) doorstep, clamoring to bring the magical book out tomorrow.

In the face of that preconceived notion, anything less than instant, massive literary recognition for the writer one actually knows personally is bound to seem like a bit of a letdown.

To be fair, plenty of aspiring writers buy into this fantasy, too — at least until they learn how the publishing industry actually works. In reality, even the writer of a book destined to be a classic a hundred years from now will often spend years querying, pitching, submitting, and revising before being picked up by an agent. Even after that legitimately thrilling achievement, there’s no guarantee that the agent will be able to sell the book to a publisher, or if s/he can, how soon it will be.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but I’ve met literally hundreds of authors who didn’t attain any serious recognition of their writing until their third or fourth books, not third or fourth month marketing them to agents.

I’m bringing this up not to depress you (although I could see where it might conceivably have that effect) but so that you will not talk yourself out of considering asking for more time, space, and support for your work just because you’ve been looking for an agent for a while — or talking yoursel into making one of those lamentably common New Year’s resolutions that demand landing an agent or a publishing contract by the end of the year.

You’ll be happier in the long run — and, dare I say it, less likely to fall prey to writer’s block — if your view of what a good writer can hope to achieve in the short run is realistic.

These days, even the IRS recognizes that ultimately very successful authors often expend years of effort without making a profit at their craft before hitting the big time. (It’s true; look it up.) If the government can accept the unappetizing fact that they’re going to have to wait to tax your book sales, is it really too much to expect those who love you to do the same?

Astonishingly often, it seems to be, but again, try not to blame your kith and kin too much. When everyone one knows seems to believe that an unpublished book must be by definition inherently flawed — because if it weren’t, it would already be published and featured on Oprah, right? — one is likely to look a trifle askance at a dream that takes a long time to come true. Or which appears to be coming true in small increments whose importance the observer doesn’t really understand.

All of which is to say: if you were planning to wait until your writing caught a break before politely requesting that your kith and kin

(a) stop nagging you to get published and go on Oprah,

(b) arguing that other activities are inherently more important than preserving your writing time and/or space,

(c) installing fitness equipment in the only logical space in the house for your desk,

(d) interrupting your scheduled writing time with the crisis du jour,

(e) interrupting your scheduled writing time for phone calls, and/or

(f) interrupting your scheduled writing time because someone just said something funny in a sitcom (improbable, but within the realm of possibility, certainly),

it might not be worth the wait. What is to a writer a major event — the realistic possibility of completing a novel within the next three months, for instance, or an agent’s request for materials, or finally selling that book proposal to a small publisher — may not be to them the unanswerable argument for support you’ve been expecting it to be. They may not respond as you would like, because after all, if your book were REALLY destined for greatness…

Well, you know the tune by now, don’t you?

And that, to slip into the vernacular for a moment, is going to suck, because at that point, you’re going to want to drop everything and devote yourself to your art. Trust me, because I speak from long, long experience and observation: at that ostensibly-joyous-yet-practically-stressful juncture, even the most sweet-tempered author is bound to feel bubbles of ulcer-inducing resentment welling up against her solar plexus.

Consider, then, the alternative. There are many advantages to gathering one’s significant other, paramour(s), children, parents, grandparents, friends, coworkers, pets, and anyone else who might be at all likely to disturb your writing time and announcing, “Now hear this! Starting this very minute and until this project is complete, I’m going to need all of your help. Raise your right hands and repeat after me: ‘Unless the house is actually on fire, I shall not interrupt my beloved writer while s/he is working…”

I’m feeling waves of panic floating from the timid at the very notion of saying such a thing. “But Anne,” I hear some of you kindly souls squeak fearfully, “isn’t that a little, you know, drastic? After all, they do leave me alone to write sometimes; I don’t want them to think I’m not grateful for that. I’ve got a much, much better idea: what if I don’t say anything at all, and just hope that they’ll take the hint?”

I understand your reluctance, oh gentle souls, but I have one question to ask in response: how has that strategy worked out for you so far?

As lovely as it would be if one’s families, roommates, and friends would spontaneously cry, “You know, honey, I’ve been thinking, and you would have two and a half hours of clear extra time per week to work on your book if I did the grocery shopping for the next six months. Please let me do this for you!” in my experience, it doesn’t happen all that often. Habit is habit, unlikely to change without somebody laying out some awfully good reasons that it should.

(Although for the benefit of any Significant Others, paramours, cats, etc. who may be reading this: anyone who DID murmur such words under the mistletoe — and actually followed through on them — would be exceedingly likely to find by spring that every writer of his/her sweetie’s acquaintance is bright green with envy. I just mention.)

Call me a cynic, but I believe that one is far, far more likely to get what one wants if one asks for it, rather than waiting for those in a position to give it to read one’s mind. Especially when, as so many aspiring writers do, you’ve probably been juggling your writing and the rest of your life well enough that from the outside, it might not look like the strain it undoubtedly is.

So instead of relying upon your loved ones to realize that you could use a bit of extra time, why not come out and request it? Or — don’t faint on me here — decree establishing time and space to write as your holiday present to yourself?

Your writing is important to you. You are NOT being selfish to ask for time and a place to do it.

Before any of you tell me that you are far, far too busy for this to be practicable — I can tell which ones intend to make this objection by the loud guffaws of disbelief and tears of mirth running down your faces — let me hasten to add that I’m thinking about some fairly small increments of undisturbed tranquility. What if, say, you were no longer the one doing the laundry? Or your teenager cooked dinner twice per week? Or you stopped playing canasta with those neighbors you never really liked in the first place? Or — and I suspect this one might resonate with some of you at this particular season — you opted out of hosting your thirty-person family’s holiday dinner next year?

How much time would that free for your writing? And, more crucially, just what message would such a step send to your kith and kin about precisely how important your writing actually is to you?

Because, if you don’t mind my asking, if you’ve never asked them to sacrifice anything for it, even momentary pleasure, are you positive that they honestly understand that you consider it your real life’s work, your genuine passion, regardless of whether your writing ever actually gets published?

Assuming, of course, that you feel this way. Most of the dedicated writers I know do.

Yes, working up the nerve to convey this to non-writers is hard, but anyone who ever told you that being a writer is easy was — well, let’s say inadequately informed. I’m going to talk more next time about how one might go about expressing this to one’s kith and kin, as well as some practical means of figuring out what can and cannot be altered in order to make more time and space for writing in your life. Before you groan, believe me, the rewards of self-expression are massive and ongoing. It is well worth reassessing the demands upon your time and space to make room for you to try.

At least think about it, please: even writers with great support and lovely, comfortable, well-lit writing spaces can usually figure out where there’s room for improvement. As Emily Dickenson wrote so charmingly, “We never know how high we are/till we are called to rise.”

She was talking about something completely different, of course, but it brings me back to a question I asked you to start considering way back in October: what do you actually need in order to write happily and well?

You didn’t honestly think that I was going to content myself with a mere pep talk today, did you?

To render subsequent discussions of October’s burning question and today’s modest proposal both more useful and more interesting, let’s expand that general question into a number of more focused ones:

(1) What conditions would you actually need in order to write productively for a significant, unbroken chunk of time? What are your necessary minimum conditions — not just generic ones, but yours — for retreating to write, even just for a day?

(2) What specific factors — ambient noise conditions, lighting, seating, height of monitor, being able to lock a door, whatever — are of tangible assistance in your creative process, and what is merely nice?

(3) Is there anything that you currently use that you could do without? If you could snap your fingers and replace a neutral factor with a useful one, what would it be?

(4) Conversely, what conditions render the actual act of writing more difficult for you? Be as specific as you can, please: cold drafts blowing across your keyboard, telemarketers calling every fifteen minutes, a bookshelf that threatens to dump its contents onto your head as you attempt to type next to it, fear of rejection? Write ‘em all down.

(5) If you believe taking a writing retreat of any length to be impossible or well-nigh impossible for you, why? Again, the more specific you can make your reply, the better.

(6) What feels like support for your writing? What are others in your life already doing that’s helpful to your writing progress, and what seems like a stumbling-block?

Yes, yes, I know: these are some pretty weighty questions, downright fundamental to who you are and how you write. That’s why I’ve given you a couple of months — and the upcoming weekend — to ponder them. They are questions that every successful professional writer has to face sooner or later, not as daydreams, but as practical realities that can be changed as necessary.

Usually, the answers become apparent about three days before a major deadline, but I think we can do better than that, don’t you? Give ‘em some thought — and keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part VIII: have you considered giving learning experiences?

For the last few posts in this series on gifts a generous, sensitive, and smart Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (did I mention attractive?) might want to bestow upon a writer, I have been concentrating upon engaging the services of a professional editor. Since that can be a pretty expensive endeavor, I’m going to spend today talking about less costly learning experiences that writers might appreciate — and, still better, ones that might help move their work toward successful publication.

Good writers, and I don’t care who hears me say it, usually tend to be more open to learning experiences than your average bear. Why? Well, it probably has something to do with having a brain that’s wired to notice telling details more than other people’s. To paraphrase HG Wells’ THE WIFE OF SIR ISAAC HARMAN, a writer is an Aolian harp upon whom the winds of society blow, causing us to sing. We have, as Wells said, unusually sensitive nervous tissue.

Aolian harp, in case you don’t happen to have a good mythological dictionary handy, is a fancy term for wind chime.

I love this analogy, because it pinpoints something that the kind folks who attempt to live with us who write must come to understand and accept: we often react more intensely to external stimuli than other people. We’re born extrapolators. You may find this hard to believe, but apparently, non-writers can sit in a restaurant without eavesdropping on nearby tables and creating elaborate life histories about the speakers based upon an excerpted sentence or two.

Or so I’m told. Anthropologically fascinating to hear how other tribes think, isn’t it?

Since we writers work overtime developing our listening skills, taking advantage of them through taking classes makes perfect sense — a common enough view that writing classes tend to be a terrific place not only to learn something new, but to meet other writers at all stages of their careers. Call it a two-for-one deal.

So here’s an idea for writers up for making suggestions about what they’d like to receive as presents: why not seek out a good writing class, either at a local teaching facility or online, and ask your FNDGG to spring for it?

If you immediately thought, “Oh, I don’t have time to take a class — I barely have time to write as it is!”, well, you’re certainly not alone. It makes perfect sense to give some advance thought to the level of time commitment you could realistically devote to a class without eating into your writing time. Allow me, however, to suggest that the less time you have to write, the more benefit you might derive from clearing some time in your schedule to take a class.

How so, you murmur? Well, at the risk of sounding pedantic, it can be beneficial in addressing a broad spectrum of writerly problems. Most literally, a class can give a writer the specific skill-polishing s/he needs to help write better, faster, stronger, etc. There are also plenty of good classes out there — and in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I teach some of them — that will assist a writer in constructing a query, synopsis, or book proposal.

Slightly more nebulously, classes also exist that will help writers revise their work to render it more marketable — agent Don Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel class pops to mind — conform more closely to the parameters of a particular genre, and yes, just write better sentences.

Price tags vary as much as offerings do. As with any other professional advice, however, the buyer should beware: not every class actually delivers what it promises. Marketing help to writers is big business these days, as anyone who has taken a gander at the many, many books offering writing advice of late can tell you, but it’s not as though there is a writer’s guardian angel out there making sure that only those with a proven track record assisting writers improve their work are allowed to advertise.

So it’s in your interest to assess claims carefully, rather than blithely sending off a check to the first class that sounds appetizing. Find out precisely what your potential teacher’s background is and how it relates to what s/he is offering to teach you.

There’s a third reason that I like to recommend that the super-busy and the writing-blocked (two groups with quite a bit of member overlap, I’ve noticed) carve out some time in their schedules to invest in a class: to get into the habit of finding time in their schedules to devote to writing.

Some of you just guffawed, didn’t you? “Um, Anne?” I hear a few cynics point out. “Aren’t you suggesting that people solve a problem by solving it? Just a touch tautological, no?”

Hear me out on this one, oh guffawers. Those who diagnose themselves as too busy to write on a regular schedule and writers experiencing certain types of writer’s block usually share the problem of finding themselves unwilling or unable, for any number of perfectly legitimate and not-so-legitimate reasons, to sit down and write on a regular basis. The hyper-occupied will rush off to do all of the other, higher-priority things they have to do before they can devote time to writing; the blocked will frequently come up with other things to do to avoid the pain of staring at a blank computer screen.

As a result, members of both groups tend not to budget a whole lot of time purely for writing, at least not on a regular basis: all too often, they will put it off until some hypothetical day when they are either not busy with something else or spontaneously inspired. Over time, that mythical day’s planned agenda can become downright terrifying: from merely a day (or week or month) to devote to writing, it devolves into feeling like THE day (or week or month) in which one has to complete the ENTIRE project. The bigger the task looming in the mind, the more tempting to put it off.

Then these well-meaning souls wake up three months later and realize that they haven’t made much progress on their writing projects. At that point, they have every incentive to blame this results on being too busy or galloping writer’s block — and once again to put off sitting down with the project. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Now admittedly, there are a million causes for writer’s block, and many millions of obligations that might conceivably render budgeting time to writedifficult. But from a working author’s point of view, the underlying problem above is that the writers have not made time to write and stuck to a schedule. This may or may not be attributable to factors within the individual’s control, but whatever the specific reasons, sitting down and writing somehow isn’t near enough to the top of the writer’s priorities to make it happen on the regular basis necessary to complete a book project.

With me so far? Excellent.

Due no doubt to early childhood training, most of us are better at maintaining a formal commitment (such as showing up for a class) than an informal one (such as a promise to oneself to sit down every day and write a few thousand words). We tend to perceive sticking to something we do with other people (or something we are paying to do) as involving less willpower than keeping a private vow.

In actuality, that’s often not true, but there’s no reason not to put the impression that it is true to good use.

Here’s a proposition to consider: a writer who can figure out how to attend a weekly two-hour class is very likely to discover at the end of it that s/he has two hours per week no longer budgeted for something other than writing; by adhering to an already-established schedule, then, that writer has gained a couple of hours per week to devote to writing. Similarly, once a writer has managed to clear a weekend to invest in a seminar, or a few days to attend a conference, s/he can probably repeat that achievement in order to devote that time to writing.

Will those couple of hours or few days be enough to write an entire book? Almost certainly not. But if repeated frequently, could the fruits of regular writing time add up? Absolutely.

And don’t throw up your hands, please, if you felt uncomfortable in classrooms growing up — writing classes turn up in a lot of forms, from traditional composition classes to paid critique groups run by established authors or editors to weekend seminars on plot complexity to once-a-week online give-and-take. The more specific you can be about what you would like to learn, the easier it will be for you — or your FNDGG — to find a class you’ll enjoy.

One reliably fruitful source of course offerings for writers lies on the conference circuit. Good writers’ conferences tend to be crammed with classes on craft, querying, submission, marketing, you name it. They’re also often wonderful places to meet other writers to swap tips and share sympathy. You might even make a friend or two with whom you’ll feel moved to exchange manuscripts for critique, or to form the nucleus of a writers’ support group.

Not to mention the fact that many conferences offer the opportunity to meet agents and editors and hear about what they like to see in a submission. At some conferences, you can even pitch your book to them, neatly sidestepping the querying stage.

Which brings me to another gift suggestion: why not ask your FNDGG to subsidize a trip to a well-constructed conference? If not to underwrite the whole thing, at least to chip in?

If you choose your conference carefully, you may also derive another fringe benefit from attendance: manuscript feedback. As clever and intrepid reader Susan wrote in yesterday to remind us, some conferences offer manuscript critique sessions relatively inexpensively — relative, that is, to employing the services of a professional editor.

Conference-based critique comes in a number of different flavors; there is no such thing as a generic conference critique, so do make sure before you register which is being offered. Here is a field guide to a few of the more common.

The public examination. At this type of event, feedback is offered during short classes within the conference itself in a manner reminiscent of American Idol: both presentation and expert feedback take place in a public forum. Attendees are invited to show up with a very short excerpt — usually a page or two, either from the text or in some cases, a query letter — dissection and discuss.

The few shy souls out there who just exclaimed, “I’d rather stick my hand into a meat grinder!” need despair: because critique is a time-consuming business, these classes usually attract far more feedback-seekers than time to take a magnifying glass to their work. Most of the time, those who sit by quietly and take copious notes on what the pros say about other people’s pages are more than welcome.

The small-group intensive. Here, critique sessions are couched in multi-hour or even multi-day group classes, often lead by an established writer or editor. An intensive class is generally offered either just before or just after the regular conference offerings, and usually entail an extra charge over and above the regular conference registration fee, so do double-check before you register.

Intensive sessions usually concentrate on a short excerpt — the first chapter is a common choice — or require participants to write fresh material in class. Again, if feedback on material already in hand is your goal, check.

The professional assessment. Sometimes these are group endeavors where a dozen people will sit and confer with an agent, editor, or established author, but they are more commonly one-on-one. Almost invariably, though, these sessions are touted as a big selling point for a conference.

Attendees are invited to submit a short manuscript excerpt — usually the first 5-20 pages, although some conferences will allow an entire chapter — which the agent, editor, etc. will undertake to read prior to the meeting. The feedback is usually quite a bit less intensive than what a freelance editor would provide (you’re unlikely, for instance, to receive commentary on particular lines of text), but if you’re looking for an uninterrupted five-minute conversation about how a professional reader like Millicent might respond to your opening pages, this can be a terrific place to start.

The pitch meeting. Pitch meetings rarely involve anyone reading manuscript pages and giving feedback on them, but I thought I should include them on this list, as conference brochures sometimes give the (often false) impression that a professional assessment is a pitch opportunity, and vice versa.

At a pitch meeting, a writer gives a verbal presentation to an agent or editor, a sort of verbal query letter, in the hope that the pro will be so taken with the pitch that s/he will request the writer to submit pages for later consideration. Face-to-face pitching is a learned skill, so if you are considering attending a conference where writers have the opportunity to pitch, please take a gander at the PITCHING BASICS category on the list at right.

As you may see, these types of conference-based feedback opportunities differ widely. The trick to benefiting from these sessions is to do your homework before you get there — which is important to know before you start looking for events to attend, since this is homework that generally needs to be done not only before the conference, but before one even signs up to attend it.

Why so far in advance? Well, several reasons. First, as I mentioned above, conferences usually require writers to submit pages for critique well in advance, generally at the time of registration. Sometimes, the deadline for submission is months before the conference, so do try to send in pages that are not likely to change radically in the interim, if the rules allow it. (Most don’t: the first chapter or 10-20 pages plus a synopsis is a fairly standard requirement, as those pages require less set up to follow, by definition.)

Also, since virtually every critique-offering conference fills personalized feedback slots on a first-come, first-served basis, you may have to be speedy to take advantage of this perq. At a conference that offer many critique opportunities, you may be able pull off registering in the month or two immediately prior to the conference, but for the vast majority of such conferences, the number of slots available is in the low double digits. They tend to go fast, so once you’ve picked your conference, register early.

One caveat to bear in mind while you’re conference-searching: as with feedback from critique-offering contests and every other source, the quality of the feedback varies by the experience level of the critiquer — and more specifically, the critiquer’s familiarity with the submitted manuscript’s book category. Even if the scheduled feedback giver has been editing romance at Harlequin for a decade, s/he may not be able to give you insight into why agents have been rejecting your thriller.

As with finding a freelance editor — or an agent, for that matter — fit between the feedback-giver and the manuscript is important. Some conferences randomly assign writers to feedback-givers, but most of the larger conferences will allow registrants to express preferences. Do a bit of background checking before you commit; you’re far, far more likely to walk away from a critique session with feedback you can use if your critiquer has a solid track record in handling your type of book.

Another factor that radically influences the quality of conference-based feedback is how much time the critiquer has actually invested in reading the pieces before commenting upon them. I don’t mean to frighten you, but do be aware that advice clearly based upon barely-skimmed submissions or, even more hurtful, only the first paragraph or two of a chapter-length submission is a perennial complaint voiced by writers attending such feedback sessions, especially those conducted by agents and editors: the habit of simply ceasing to read as soon as they’ve made up their minds about a submission can be pretty firmly ingrained.

Before anyone out there takes umbrage at the notion of paying a conference for this level of feedback — which doesn’t necessarily entail a more solid reading than Millicent might give a first chapter; the difference lies in hearing specifics about why the screener stopped reading — lack of familiarity with the materials to be reviewed is not always the critiquer’s fault. It’s not at all uncommon for critiquers to be culled from the speakers, agents, and editors invited to the conference, some of whom may not receive the pages for critique until they actually arrive at the conference.

Or — brace yourselves — on the day of the meeting.

And yes, this frequently occurs even at conferences that require writers to submit their pages months in advance. Why? Beats me; organizational acumen seems to be wildly unevenly distributed across conference-giving groups. When I’ve inquired about it — say, at a conference where I had been engaged to give such feedback, but did not actually see a syllable of the writing involved until a couple of hours before I was supposed to meet with the people who wrote them — I’ve heard every explanation from shifting schedules to lost paperwork to an elaborately polite insistence that giving me the pages early enough to spend some real time with them would have inconvenienced me.

They didn’t want to impose, they said.

I’ve been on both sides of this particular phenomenon, actually: some years ago, I was in residence at a New England artists’ colony that shall remain nameless. as well-established sculptors and painters dropped by to give emerging artists feedback on their works-in-progress, the colony had taken the trouble to import a famous author or two every couple of weeks to impart wisdom to those treading the earlier steps of the path to greatness.

Or, slightly more cynically, the colony helped supplement the established’s income by offering informal teaching gigs. The first of these authors spent a week on-site and was quite charming, at least to those of us whose work she liked. She read excerpts, gave constructive feedback, helped writers over manuscript difficulties, and even gave a couple of impromptu lectures on craft.

A couple of weeks later, the feedback environment altered considerably. The Living Legend scheduled to shed her effulgence on the residents sent word that she would be arriving a trifle late, but she was reading the excerpts we had submitted to her industriously. One forgives such things in National Book Award winners, naturally. When she arrived late on day 3 of her week-long residence, she announced that she could stay for only a couple of days — the absolute minimum, the cynical speculated, to collect her honorarium for meeting with us — so she wanted to meet with each of us right away.

Practically the moment I walked into my scheduled meeting, she launched into a vigorous diatribe about the inherent weakness of a particular scene. The only trouble was, I hadn’t written the scene that had so upset her sensibilities; the writer with the appointment after mine had. As nearly as I could tell from her tirade, she had decided that I must have written the short story in question — although I do not write short stories — because the character in the story looked a bit like me.

As do hundreds of thousands of adult women of Mediterranean extraction, I might add. But I digress.

It took me several minutes to convince the Grande Dame of Literature that I was telling the truth about who I was and what I had written — and for both of us to realize that she had not yet read my piece at all. Embarrassed for her, I offered to reschedule our appointment on the following day, but she was adamant that she was only prepared to give me (her phrase) an hour of her time. As about 35 minutes of that time had already elapsed, I proposed that we should devote it to chatting about the writing life in general; again, no.

After an intensive five minutes of rooting about in her briefcase, she finally managed to dig up my pages. With a sigh of irritated relief, she plumped herself down to read them in front of me. I sat uncomfortably, marveling at her speed-reading prowess. Fortunately for my ego — or unfortunately; I’ve never been able to decide — she evidently did not find any error glaring enough to point out. I suspect it would have been a relief to her if she had.

After she finished, she glanced up at me warily. “It’s good,” she conceded, clearly cudgeling her well-laureled brains for something constructive to advise.

Having been well brought-up, I waited politely for her to continue — and I must say, I’m still waiting. To fill up the remaining five minutes of our meeting, we chatted about the writing life in general.

I wish I could state positively that La Belle’s behavior was exceptional, but the sad fact is that one hears similar stories about write-your-way-in conferences and artists’ retreats that offer on-site professional feedback from well-established authors as an incentive for writers to apply for residencies. It just goes to show you: not all feedback from professionals is professional feedback, nor will all of it be helpful. But I’m relatively certain that had I not already sought out and received scads of genuinely thoughtful, well-informed critique of my work before I watched the Famous Gentlewoman unsuccessfully trying to critique my work on the fly, I would have been crushed by her lack of professionalism.

The moral: just because someone famous reads your work doesn’t necessarily mean that their feedback is going to be useful; just because a conference brochure touts a critique opportunity doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your manuscript. Do your homework, invest your conference-going dollars carefully — and accept that sometimes, you’re going to encounter a dud. That’s the nature of one-size-fits-all critiquing.

Oh, dear, I meant to spend today’s post recommending conference attendance, not repeatedly hissing, “Caveat emptor,” let the buyer beware. Well, I suppose that’s not a complete surprise in a blog that so frequently cautions caveat lector, let the reader beware.

On that dubious note, I shall sign off for today. More gift-giving tips and general chat about the writing life follow anon. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part V: the dreaded e-word



I was going to end my sneakily double-edged series on gifts to give writers (and gifts writers can give themselves that might help them, you know, WRITE) this weekend with a high-minded lecture about the value of freeing up time for that noble endeavor. However, it occurred to me in the dead of night that my book doctoring business is booked up far enough in advance at this point that I can talk about a really, really nice present that writers might like — and which, like the other tidbits I have so far mentioned, might actually help their careers in the long run — without the appearance of devolving into self-promotion.

So please pay attention, Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: today’s post will give you some pointers on how to go about purchasing some freelance editing.

Why might a talented writer be pleased to receive a touch of professional feedback? To put it bluntly, because the vast majority of aspiring writers create in a vacuum, free of any feedback at all, or at any rate free of useful feedback that might prepare a manuscript for the microscopic-level scrutiny a successful book must undergo before landing an agent or publishing contract. Getting the professional opinion of someone well-versed in both the ins and outs of good writing and the vagaries of a particular book category BEFORE subjecting it to the scathing, hyper-critical eye of an agent, editor, or contest judge can save a writer a whole lot of heartache — and sometimes speed up the agent-finding stage of a career considerably.

Which is precisely why this is an area where a non-writer gift-giver, or even a writer who has never worked with an editor before, could usually use a bit of guidance. To the uninitiated, finding the right freelance editor, as opposed to just some yahoo with a green pencil and a desire to tell other people what to do, can be a tad on the difficult side.

Translation: this is not the kind of service for which an eager FNDGG can simply spend 15 minutes online purchasing a gift certificate. Few freelance editors issue formal gift certificates — although it’s an interesting idea. However, I don’t know a single one who would turn down an editing job just because someone other than the author proposes to pay for it.

This means, unfortunately for those who like genuine surprises to await them under a certain well-lit and -decorated tree, that this is the kind of present that a writer is almost certainly going to want to pick out for herself.

Did I just hear some of my long-time readers groaning? Yes, you’re quite right: I AM about to say that just as not every agent is the best fit for any given book, neither is every editor. Nor, more to the point and contrary to what some book doctors promise, is every freelance editor.

Note the distinction: an editor and a freelance editor are most emphatically not the same thing.

An editor, generally speaking, works for a publishing house and is, often, the person responsible for acquiring books for the house to publish. While this role usually entails writing the editorial memo requesting pre-publication changes to the manuscript, an editor will not necessarily line-edit: at a large publisher, correcting the grammar and flagging problems with flow is the province of the copyeditor, who typically doesn’t get her mitts on the pages until after the requested editorial changes have already been made.

I just heard hundreds of jaws hitting the floor simultaneously, didn’t I? Not too surprising: the common conception of editing is not most of what your garden-variety editor does.

Some do still prefer to do their own copyediting, of course, but for the most part, the editor concentrates on big-picture issues and shepherding the book through the sometimes quite bumpy road to publication.

Hey, somebody’s got to encourage the marketing and the production departments to communicate about your book, right?

A freelance editor, on the other hand, typically works for the author, helping get the book ready for submission. For the record, freelance editors do not acquire books — so those of you out there who persist in sending me pitches for books in the hope I will publish them, cut it out, please — nor do we, unless specifically requested, edit toward a particular publisher’s likes and dislikes.

A good freelancer who specializes in your book category can, however, show you how to make a manuscript appeal to what’s selling in that market now. Sometimes this is merely a matter of proofreading; sometimes it is a matter of radical reconstruction. What is required varies from manuscript to manuscript, book category to book category, and sometimes even targeted agent to targeted agent.

We’ve also been known to assist authors in implementing the editor’s sweeping requests by a specified, often very tight deadline, but mostly, freelance editors do what agents and editors at publishing houses used to do routinely: dig into manuscripts up to our elbows to root out problems and suggest practical means to render books better able to survive in the current super-competitive market.

Think of a freelance editor as a consultant who can give tips on whipping a book into market shape. Or, at the more intense levels of the biz, as a diagnostician who can figure out why a particular manuscript has been getting rejected. There’s good reason that the super-particular ones like me are known as book doctors.

Like other types of doctors, the more intensive the remedy required, the more likely experienced freelance editors are to specialize — which is why just opening the Yellow Pages to editing and calling the first business listed, doing a generic online search, or bidding because a particular editing service is going for cheap on eBay is probably not going to You wouldn’t want a dentist to take out your appendix, would you?

Be warned, however: what such services cost can vary quite a bit, depending upon what a particular manuscript needs. Straightforward proofreading tends to be quite inexpensive, because it’s relatively speedy for an experienced editor to do; expect to pay in the neighborhood of $3-5/page.

Line editing (also known as copyediting) is all about clarity and presentation, and is thus a great choice for a writer unfamiliar with the norms of submission or in question about grammar. Line editing involves both proofreading AND giving advice on how to rearrange sentences and paragraphs to maximize readability, so it takes far more time to do.

And that, believe it or not, is the good news.

Why? Well, a good editor will read and reread compulsively, remembering that on page 272 that you used that same phrase on page 28. Since this type of manuscript problem is virtually impossible for a writer to catch for himself, and since agents, editors, and contest judges tend to have similarly retentive memories for text, a freelancer’s compulsion to spend a few extra minutes keeping track of repetitions may be exceptionally useful.

The less-good news is that how much line editing any given manuscript needs varies almost infinitely, so even the best freelance editor may need to give the book a once-over before even being able to give you an estimate. However, to keep your from wandering around in the dark unassisted, the Editorial Freelancers Association has a nifty chart that will give you some indication of hourly rates for different services.

The stated rates aren’t binding, mind you, but it will at least give your FNDGG some indication of what he’s committing himself to shell out.

Developmental editing is the top of the product line, as it were, beginning at around $45/hour and climbing to much, much more, depending upon the editor’s experience, client list, and willingness to drop everything to counsel writers through midnight crises of faith. Typically, it encompasses both proofing and line editing, but also entails working with the author to correct overarching writing problems and refining the book on every level to tailor it to its intended target market.

And that, you guessed it, can take quite a bit of time, depending on how market-ready the manuscript already is. A good developmental editor will flag anything and everything in a manuscript that might conceivably make an agent or editor familiar with the book category hesitate for even a moment over the page. With that level of scrutiny, it’s not unusual to give feedback on practically every line of the book , so a developmental editor sometimes will spend hours on a single page.

Yes, you read that correctly. I wasn’t kidding about its being spendy. I sometimes blush when printing out my invoices.

Ideally, a developmental editor would come into the project near the beginning of the writing process, but in practice, the author often has a draft already completed. The more fundamental the changes you’re willing to make, generally speaking, the more you’ll like working with a developmental editor: it’s the closest a writer without a book contract in hand can come to the micro-level reading a manuscript will get before being picked up by a publisher.

As I MAY have mentioned once or twice before, agents and editors don’t read like other people: they read line by line, at least for the early parts of a submission, their little antennae alert for red flags. An experienced developmental editor can teach you how to keep those antennae happily swinging in the passing breeze.

Oh, then there’s substantive editing, which falls between line editing and developmental editing in both content and price. It, too, involves massaging a manuscript until the potential problems fall out. However, while a developmental editor will typically make all kinds of suggestions about different directions in which a particular scene could be taken, a strictly substantive editor will only work with what is already there.

To put it another way, a substantive editor comments on what is; a developmental editor works to make a book what it could be.

The line between the two sounds kind of slippery in theory, doesn’t it? I assure you, that’s only because the distinction is nebulous in practice. Many editor-seeking writers who begin looking for a substantive edit end up wanting — or needing — developmental services, so substantive is not a category every freelance editor recognizes.

Confused? I’d be surprised if you weren’t. Happily, my editors’ guild has been kind enough to post a blow-by-blow of the differences between the levels of editing for your dining, dancing, and comparison-shopping pleasure.

Given the broad range of services (and pricetags) available, it would behoove a writer thinking about hiring a freelance editor (or a Furtive NDGG thinking about doing so for someone else) to give some serious thought to the level and specificity of feedback a manuscript really needs. After all, if you just want to know that your book is free of grammatical and spelling problems, it doesn’t make sense to shell out for developmental editing — but if your manuscript has the literary equivalent of whooping cough, a simple proofing is not going to make that cough go away.

Do I see some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, “I’ve never gotten professional feedback before. How can I tell what level of editing my book needs?”

Good question, disembodied voices, but shouldn’t you be off caroling somewhere? Isn’t it getting to be eggnog time in your part of the world?

In short, I’ll tackle the thorny issue tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part IV: research and other tools you can use to narrow (and, ideally, shorten) your agent search

For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about the strategic desirability of keeping abreast of what’s being published lately in the book category in which one has chosen to write — in particular, what first-time authors in your area are managing to get into print these days. While what hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble last week isn’t necessarily an infallible indicator of what agents and editors want to see right now — it’s often a year or two between a manuscript’s sale to a publisher and when it comes out, and often a year or several before that when that manuscript got picked up by an agent, so what’s new at B&N is reflective of what these discerning folks wanted then — reading the current releases can give you a strong general sense of what these folks consider good writing in your genre.

Besides, how else are you going to figure out how your book is different and better than what’s already out there, an essential set of information for pulling together a stellar query, pitch, or book proposal, if you aren’t familiar with what iS already out there?

Gaining familiarity with, say, the last five years’ worth of first releases in your category will also enable you to glean a working impression of what’s old hat and what’s hot, what might be considered fresh and what just weird in a new submission. Agents see a LOT of queries and submissions that seem derivative of the latest bestseller in a book category — or, even more commonly, a bestseller from two, five, or even ten years ago. And the sad thing is, in many of these cases, the submitting writer didn’t even borrow on purpose; they just knew so little about the current market for that category that they thought the bestseller was the category.

Don’t laugh — plenty of writers stumble into seeming derivative by accident. Independently writing a book that’s very, very similar to something that’s hit the market and failing to mention its uncanny resemblance to that book is a mistake that’s scuttled many a good query.

Or, to put it as uncharitably as critics as long ago as Samuel Johnson (who probably didn’t actually say this; it’s been attributed to a whole lot of editors over the years) have: “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that’s good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

Ouch.

Frankly, it used to be easier for fledgling writers to follow their respective markets than it is now. We hear about the potential bestsellers, of course, but smaller books garner less attention than in days of yore. Publishing houses have been cutting down on promotion in recent years, particularly of first books, and many newspapers have been cutting way back or even eliminating their book review sections.

Why, I read only the other day that even National Public Radio is planning on cutting one of its fine book-discussion shows. When even NPR and PBS start to doubt the future of the book, the barbarians are not only at the writer’s gate; they’ve pulled up chairs and are sharing our dinner.

Now, I happen to believe in the future of the book — yes, even the book that isn’t a bestseller. Mid-list books, the ones that sold not spectacularly but consistently, used to be considered the backbone of the industry, after all. I just think — and admittedly, this is a lulu of a just — that the combination of a slow economy and the rise of the Internet means that the traditional means of selling books aren’t working as well as they have in the past.

But that doesn’t mean that the book is dead; it’s perfectly obvious that people haven’t simply stopped reading, any more than folks like us have stopped writing. The rise of the blogosphere alone proves that. Publishers are going to need to figure out new ways to convince readers to buy their products — or to change how readers pay for it. (There have been some exciting experiments lately in sponsorship for serialized e-books, for instance.)

While they’re figuring that out, I’ve a modest proposal: the English-speaking world is rife with aspiring writers, and the vast majority of us are inveterate readers. Millions of us. We may not be able to change profitability trends by ourselves or overnight, but if all of us bumped up our book-buying habits just a little and kept at it, the cumulative effect could be considerable.

Or, to put it bluntly: if you want to live in a world where it’s profitable to sell books, buy some. And if you want to live in a world where publishers, and thus agents, are willing to take chances on first-time authors of books like yours, buy books like yours by first-time authors.

Admittedly, however, this practice can add up into some serious dosh pretty fast — which is why, in case you were wondering, so many professional writers regard buying recent releases in their own books’ categories as market research, a legitimate business expense, and claim it as such on their Schedule Cs. (Word of warning: I am not a qualified tax advisor and I don’t know your particular situation, so do have a nice chat with someone who is and does — ideally, someone with experience in artists’ taxes — before you start deducting anything.)

So why not, as I have been suggesting for some days now, place the relevant volumes on your wish list so that those who are just aching to buy you presents (like, say, our old pal, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver) can help float those authors’ boats, too? Everybody wins — including you, because it’s just about the least costly means of getting your mittens on the books you really should be reading in order to market your writing effectively.

But enough of the more depressing reasons that investing in books in your category is a good idea. Let’s move hastily on to another, more immediately practical reason to get in touch with one’s submarket and remain so, one much dearer to the hearts of most agent-seekers than any I mentioned yesterday.

It’s a great way to identify agents to query. Better than that, it’s also a great way to find out what warms a particular agent’s heart.

Because while, as I spent the late summer and early fall arguing in this very forum that there’s no such thing as a query or submission that will please every single agent on the planet, there is substantial empirical evidence that every agent on the planet is at least a little bit flattered by queries that begin,

Since you so successfully represented Unknown Author’s recent novel, FIRST BOOK, I hope you will be interested in my novel, PROJECT I’VE BEEN WORKING ON FOR A DECADE…

Obviously, to pull of this particular bit of strategic flattery, it helps to be familiar with Unknown Author’s work. If only there were a way to do that…oh, wait; I’ve just spent the last couple of days discussing that very issue.

Fortuitous, eh?

Note that I’m suggesting mentioning a less-known or first-time author upon whom the agent took a chance, rather than merely finding out who an agent’s best-selling client is and praising her to the skies. They are far likely to be buttered up, I’ve found, by mentions of novels them may have struggled to sell than by similar references to their better-established clients.

It’s not very difficult to use this pervasive quirk to your advantage in a query letter. Perhaps because, as Edith Sitwell tells us: “The aim of flattery is to soothe and encourage us by assuring us of the truth of an opinion we have already formed about ourselves.”

(Had I mentioned that I still have a backlog of apt quotes to use up?)

To slather on the butter with an even more lavish hand, go ahead and say something nice about the book in your query letter to its agent. According to Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, “We are so vain that we even care for the opinion of those we don’t care for.”

Naturally, the buttering-up process is going to be a whole lot easier to pull of if you have actually read the book in question. Although truth does compel me to say that if you are in a hurry, you can’t go far wrong with something along the lines of, “As the agent who so ably represented Keanu Reeves’ BRAIN SURGERY FOR EVERYBODY, I believe you will be interested in my book…” even if your sole contact with this impressive volume was seeing it on a list of Mssr. Reeves’ agent’s clients.

That being said, on conscientious grounds, I really should reiterate that you ought to read, if not actually buy (or urge your FNDGG to buy for you), all of the books you are using as launching pads for query letters to agents. Don’t even think of formulating a substantive praise for an unread book, even if you lift that praise directly from The New York Times Review of Books. Too many would be butterers-up have found themselves being asked, “So, what did you like about that book?” by an agent who devoted years of her life to promoting it.

Trust me, she’ll be able to tell if you’re faking an opinion.

If you can at all afford it, do try to buy these books, though. Indirectly, it’s in your self-interest: after all, the sales of an agent’s current clients subsidize hiring Millicent to screen submissions from new writers, right? And while agents’ literary tastes do vary widely, they do inexplicably all share a taste for readers actually purchasing their clients’ work.

Must be the effect of close proximity on the collective mind, much like that strange phenomenon often noted by conference-attending writers where the mere fact of sitting on a dais with other agents and editors will apparently cause them all to tell an expectant audience of the would-be published exactly the same things about querying and submission, rather than emphasizing how their tastes differ, which would actually be far more useful to attendees trying to figure out which of the throng to approach for pitching purposes.

Perhaps famous salonnaire Marguerite-Louise-Virginie Chardon Ancelot was presciently thinking of the collective opinions of those who promote books when she wrote, “It can be said of the society of salons that not one person exactly resembles another. Nevertheless, there is so little difference, it being like the leaves of a tree that are not exactly the same, yet seem all alike.”

Another reason to buy books written by the agent of your dreams’ more obscure clients is the good karma factor. As I MAY have pointed out earlier in this very post, the world would be a substantially better place for writers if we supported one another by purchasing books by first-time authors early and often.

Who can forget Glückel of Hamelyn’s 1719 pronouncement, “Stinginess does not enrich; charity does not impoverish”?

However, good old Glückel aside, I know that some of you will need to rely upon the library for your pre-buttering-up research. That can be pretty time-consuming — and not always sufficient, because although the print-on-demand market is becoming increasingly important, both for self-publishers and small presses, many libraries still refuse to purchase POD books at all, as a matter of policy.

So here are a few tips on how to expand your reading list without buying out Borders or hiding from its staff while you carefully read books for sale without bending their pages. As Zora Neale Hurston liked to put it, “research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prodding with a purpose.”

First, you don’t need to until a book is actually published before complimenting it agent on the achievement of selling it. Given predictable lag times between book contract and actual publication, you may be able to spot a relevant sale as much as two years before it turns up in a bookstore near you.

So in a sense, even a very hip bookstore is a graveyard of passé contracts. (As Mary Webb informed us in PRECIOUS BANE, “We are tomorrow’s past.”) As I mentioned at the top of this post, what you are seeing in bookstores today, then, is not necessarily what is selling NOW.

And, as I sense dimly that I may not be the first to point out, the early bird catches the worm. By querying the agent BEFORE the book comes out, you will beat the crowd of writers who inevitably swamp the agent of any commercially big book. (Sorry, no quote for that one. This is harder than it looks, people.)

Also, your promptness will tell the agent indirectly that you are a savvy writer familiar with market trends — and you will become one, if you become a regular reader of book sales. It is surprisingly addictive, if a bit depressing at the moment, and you will quickly learn a great deal about what is and is not being sold to publishing houses right now.

How does one pull this off, you ask? Start reading the trade journals, such as Publishers’ Weekly, or subscribe to Publishers Marketplace, which lists pretty much every sale to a North American publishing house, by title, author, agent, and often a one-line description of the book as well.

Neither subscription is very cheap — but hey, isn’t that what hints to one’s FNDGG are for?

A fringe benefit to reading either source habitually: many times, these sources will give a general indication of the advance offered, too, so you can start getting some idea of what your writing is potentially worth in the happy event that you do sell a book in the current market. (Spoiler alert: pretty much every aspiring writer believes that the average advance is exponentially larger than it actually is. Especially these days.)

To quote my former agent, “We don’t really have any idea of a book’s market value until we start to shop it around.” (Come on — you expected me to have a famously relevant quote ready for that one?)

If you are a novelist, pay particular attention to the debut novels, which are often broken off into their own section in industry listings. Again, there is no better way to tell which agents are willing to take on new writers than to find out who is putting that inspiring level of openness into action.

If any or all of this seems anti-artistically practical to you, consider what George Eliot told us in ADAM BEDE, “It you could make a pudding wi’thinking o’ the batter, it ‘ud be easy getting dinner.”

Hard to argue with that.

Keeping abreast of who is selling what will also allow you to target your queries more effectively as agents’ (and agencies’) tastes change over time — a phenomenon which, I am sad to report, is not always reflected promptly in the standard agency guide listings (which often remain un-updated for years on end) or even on agency websites (which tend to be updated seldom). Acquiring the laudable habit of comparing what these sources say particular agents are looking to represent with the same preferences as the agents themselves are currently describing them at writers’ conferences and their blurbs in conference guides will also help you keep on top of who to send what when.

The more current the information you can dig up, the better.

Since a pre-publication query is a situation where you could not possibly have read the book before querying (unless you happen to be a member of the author’s critique group), you need not worry about complimenting the book; by noticing the sale, you will be complimenting the AGENT, which is even better.

In fact, you should make sure NOT to compliment the book, since anything you say is bound to come across as insincere. Has not Pearl S. Buck taught us that “Praise out of season, or tactlessly bestowed, can freeze the heart as much as blame”?

A good all-purpose opening, to steer clear of the slightest hint of misdirected flattery:

Congratulations on your successful sale of BOOK X! Since you so skillfully represent (BOOK X’s type of book), I hope you will be interested in my book…

Yes, learning to be this talented an agent-butterer does take time, as well as quite a bit of work. But unlike so many of the mundane tasks aspiring writers need to perform to attract an agent’s attention in a tight market, forming the twin habits of reading what’s newly in your area and keeping abreast of what editors are acquiring right now for your future reading pleasure will not merely be helpful in blandishing the agent of your dreams into taking a gander at your work. These are habits that will help you in later years be a more marketable — and perhaps even better — author, well versed in all of the pretty things writers in your category can do to enchant their readers.

“Unhappiness,” Bernadin de Saint-Pierre wrote in THE INDIAN HUT, “is like the black mountain of Bember, at the edge of the blazing kingdom of Lahor. As long as you are climbing it, you see nothing but sterile rocks; but once you are at the peak, heaven is at your head, and at your feet is the kingdom of Cashmere.”

Try to think of all this self-assigned reading as continuing education for your dream profession. Asking for these books might not have been your first impulse when you sat on Santa’s lap this year, but it would be a good, strategic second thought.

Speaking of gift lists, I shall be moving on to a new section of mine next time — and you’ll be happy to hear that I’m all quoted out for now. Keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part III: the graveyard of book contracts past, or, a few more good reasons to buy books by first-time authors, and still more evidence that a little contact with a book of quotations goes a long way

Looks like the aftermath of a major flood in Mouseville, doesn’t it? When I first caught sight of the scene, I instinctively glanced about to check if Anderson Cooper were reporting nearby, wet to the knees and disapproving.

Apparently, I am the mayor of poor, flooded Mouseville, because I took this picture about a foot and a half from where I am now sitting, inside my house. I came by the position honestly, I assure you: after my tirade the other day about the vital importance of good lighting in a midwinter writing space, the proverbial bee seems to have remained in my bonnet, buzzily nagging — nay, demanding — that I move my studio to the brightest room in the house in genteel protest of the notorious darkness of a Seattle winter and the news in the last few issues of Publishers Weekly.

As the far and away the brightest room in our house is also the biggest, the living room/library (so designated to differentiate it from the bedroom/library, kitchen/library, laundry room/library, etc.; see yesterday’s comment about serious writers always owning more books than shelves to house them), I was anticipating having to lobby my SO for the rest of the year to pull this off — by which time, of course, the darkest part of the year would be beginning to recede. However, in an odd twist that would be absolutely implausible in a novel, the very seasonal darkness of which I had been complaining abruptly made my case for me: my SO saw some doubtless light-craving soul jump off one of our region’s less lovely bridges the other day.

He’s been busily rearranging furniture in the ex-living room/library ever since. Heck, he even made an unprompted trip to Ikea for another bookshelf.

Fortunately, unlike most bits of real-life melodrama that don’t seem real on the page, the story of the jumper has ending rather an ancient Greek tragedy, complete with deus ex machina: at the particular moment the hapless jumper chose to end it all on that distinctly unpretty bridge (as opposed to the far more popular choice of suicidal aesthetes on the other side of town), an unoccupied ambulance happened to be trying to merge into the traffic jam on the bridge. If he had jumped directly into the ambulance, rather than off the bridge first, he probably would have been happier in the long run, but still, I hope that he will someday be grateful that King County evidently had the foresight to hire at least one psychic ambulance driver.

Just another service brought to you by the local New Age ordinances, presumably; we must have them. My proof: in yet another development that would make any hardened novel or memoir-reader snort with derision, I saw in the newspaper the other day that many Seattle City Council meetings open with a poetry reading.

If you have seen the poetry local government sees fit to post on buses, you are probably already trembling for democracy. Still, it’s kind of great to live in a town so stuffed to the gills with poets that there is actual competition over who gets appointed to be this month’s official City Poetry Curator.

In anticipation of a shiny new bookcase and the dislocation of my desk, my SO and I were gruntingly shifting the God-awful 1950s dresser his sainted grandmother had seen fit to bequeath to us. Until now, sentimental recollections had gilded the sublime hideousness of its multicolored veneer: Granny used to store her beloved Bible and handgun side-by-side in it.

A fact I discovered inadvertently years ago while helping her move, in case you’re curious. I had thought the revolver was a toy, the property of one of the grandchildren playing in the next room, until I picked it up — and realized that it was both real and loaded. Evidently, the phrase gun safe had never sullied Granny’s ears until I uttered them that day. If the words Communist plot featured prominently in her reply, well, far be it from me to speak ill of the dead.

Suffice it to say that before this enlightening discussion had unfolded far, I got the kids out of there, pronto.

For a variety of reasons, then, this particular dresser had slumbered for years under an embroidered tablecloth a globe-trotting friend had been kind enough to send me from Bangladesh shortly after Granny’s death, never moved and seldom even having its drawers opened. The discovery that our cats had been using it as a sarcophagus for the much-chewed remains of their furry toys thus seemed eerily appropriate.

For hours after we unearthed this mousy Valley of the Kings, the kitties prowled around protectively, snarling at us when we tried to discard the most decomposed of them. Clearly, that dresser had a preoccupation with death, and who can blame it, after the life it’s led?

I’m happy to say that it is no longer in the house — and that I have both a sunnier place to work and slightly more storage space for my books.

Speaking of which, last time, I was touting the virtues of getting into the habit of reading every (or as close to every as possible) first book published in your book category this year…and next year, and the year after that. Not only will adherence to this sterling practice give an aspiring writer a very solid sense of how editors and agents conceive of the category — thus rendering it easier to tell whether one’s work genuinely falls within it, a question that plagues many genre-crossers — but it will help develop a sense of one’s target readership as well.

Perhaps the lingering billows of dust from all that furniture moving have temporarily clogged my psychic antennae, but somehow, I felt that this sterling argument left some of you unconvinced yesterday. So I’m going to spend today elaborating.

Sometimes the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver requires more cajoling than others.

Reading the entire literary output of new authors in a particular subsection of the market may seem like a gargantuan task to some of you, but most of you have no serious reason for trepidation: the majority of book categories actually sport relatively few first-time authors in any year’s harvest of publications.

Yes, Virginia, even in the fairly large categories.

Let me share a deep, dark secret from my past: back in my thankfully long ago agent-seeking days, I made a practice of reading every first literary or mainstream novel written by an American woman under 40 published by a major US publishing house each year. Care to guess how long that took?

I wish I could report that it was a full-time job, but in truth, it wasn’t all that time-consuming. There were few years where more then 25 books answered that description; one year, there were only 7, counting new Canadian female authors. And those 7 were represented by only 3 agencies, I discovered.

Guess whom I queried the instant I uncovered THAT unsavory little fact?

The realization could have made me despair — but instead, it convinced me to sit down and take a good, hard look at the novel I was shopping around, to see if there was any way that I could legitimately make it appeal to readers of more book categories, because that opened up so many more querying possibilities. And sure enough, after I had taken most of the semicolons out of the text and readjusted the thought/action ratio a little, I found that my novel was about equally welcome to agents who represented adult fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction — which makes some sense, as there is considerable overlap amongst the readers of all three.

Heck, literary fiction aimed at women is considered downright redundant in some circles of the industry, since college-educated women form about 90% of literary fiction buyers.

And yet the burly writings of Phillip Roth continue to sell well. Yet another cosmic mystery. As that marketing genius Jacqueline Susann once said, “I think Phillip Roth is a great writer. But I wouldn’t want to shake his hand.” (Had I mentioned that I dug up far, far more quotes yesterday than I could ever hope to work into a single post?)

Unless a writer became awfully darned familiar with the book market, how is s/he to know that a book category filled with so many prominent male authors boasts such a largely female readership? Or that literary fiction by women featuring female protagonists is often marketed not as literary fiction, a comparatively tiny market, but as what agents like to call women’s fiction with a literary voice because the women’s fiction market is so huge?

Quoth Queen Marie Leckzinska, wife of Louis XV: “To live in peace with socieity, you must open your eyes to the qualities that are pleasing and close them to to the ludicrous and eccentric that are offensive.”

Hey, she said it; I didn’t.

Following the ever-changing boundaries of one’s chosen book category is only one of the many benefits of reading all of the first-time authors within it, of course. It’s substantially easier to produce something fresh if you know what agents and editors who represent your kind of book have been reading over the past couple of years. How about learning the current conventions of one’s genre, what’s now considered de rigeur and what’s now passé?

While you’re out snooping, why not do some research on what kind of voice have been selling of late, and which eschewed as old-fashioned? Are the Point-of-View Nazis enjoying a resurgence in your selected category, or have they fallen out of fashion? How long are first books in that category these days?

I hesitate to mention length, because it tends to be a sore spot with many aspiring writers. Don’t believe me? Okay, the next time you find yourself at an agents’ or editors’ forum at a conference, stand up and ask how many pages is too long for a submission. Even if the pros are very kind in expressing the answer, the subsequent depression amongst half the audience will be palpable — and most of the time, the writer grumbling in the row behind you will not be muttering that the limits are too high.

In answer to that inquisitive whimper I just heard out in the ether and the giant unshouted question that I suspect underlies it, the long answer is that I’ve written at length on this subject under the BOOK LENGTH category on the list on the right-hand side of this page.

The short answer: in general, 65,000 – 100,000 words — estimated, not actual — or 260 – 400 pages in standard format, is considered roughly normal for a first book. (If you don’t know how or why to estimate a word count, please see the WORD COUNT category on the list at right. If you’re unfamiliar with the restrictions of standard format for manuscripts, please see MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED.)

To forestall any imminent heart problems out there, let me hasten to add that length expectations do vary quite a bit by category, genre, and even subgenre. Checking how long first books like yours are lately can save you a whole lot of uncertainty at revision time.

Am I hearing some long-suffering sighs out there? I know; that was a lot of heavy information to toss at you in a single post at the height of holiday season. I have more to say on this subject, but I’m going to sign off for today, to give you some time to digest all of this — or, for those of you whom I have already convinced of the value of stocking up on new works by first-time authors in your area, to scurry off to make a wish list for your FNDGG.

To lighten your hearts a bit before I go, let me just take a second to add: as Francis Bacon wrote so long ago, knowledge is power. In few areas of life is this as true as often as during the querying and submission stages of a writer’s career — because as painful as it may be to accept, scads of queries are rejected on sight because the book is miscategorized or sent to an agent who doesn’t represent that type of book; literally tons of manuscripts are rejected every year because they seem dated or repeat something that’s been done before or are just too long or short by current standards.

How can knowing all that make you more powerful in a situation that often seems arbitrary to aspiring writers? By spurring you to learn about the category in which you are writing, so you may market your work and revise it more effectively. That’s knowledge that can genuinely help you reduce your manuscript’s chances of rejection.

A bit depressing? Perhaps. Time-consuming? Definitely. It’s not for nothing that Lawrence Kasden said, “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”

But isn’t your writing’s success worth it?

More thoughts on this subject follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part II: shelves and the things that go on them

Last time, I began suggesting some ways in which the holiday habits of that seasonally-ubiquitous jolly fellow, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver, might be turned via gentle hints toward the consideration of items and services of genuine long-term use to the committed writer. Admittedly, I began by shooting high: what’s wrong, I asked innocently, with giving a writer time and space to write? Happy the writer whose kith and kin understand her well enough to gather behind her back whilst she’s baking cookies to say, “You know what Gertrude would REALLY like this year? A week without any obligations, so she could finally finish her novel/memoir/definitive history of drainage in 17th-century Ireland!”

I suspect that I don’t have to elaborate for any working writer about precisely how and why Gertrude would be cryingly grateful for such a present. After all, “(l)ife together,” as George Sand wrote, “is the ideal of happiness for those who love each other; but each thinking soul also needs time for solitude and contemplation.”

So true, George, so true — but I’d be willing to bet this handful of change in my pocket that 95% of the writers reading this have never even discussed the possibility of a retreat with even their nearest and dearest. There’s good reason for that, of course, at least amongst those of us who were not raised by wolves. Let’s face it, it’s just not considered polite to answer the perennial (and rather uncreative, I’ve always thought) question, “What do you want for Christmas?” with a heartfelt howl of, “Are you kidding? Leave me alone so I may get some writing done!”

Even if that is, in fact, what you would like to receive for Christmas. Or any other time, really.

Next week, as promised, I’m going to talk a bit more about how to clear time and space for one’s writing. (Just in time for New Year’s resolution-making, you point out? Why, what a remarkable coincidence!) For today, I’m going to content myself with brainstorming about a few less pricey ways writers’ FNDGGs may bring joy and practical assistance to them throughout the year.

I’m tempted to go all prosaic here and suggest asking for bookshelves — because, honestly, have you ever known a serious writer who didn’t possess more volumes than shelves to house them? As Jean-Paul Sartre was known to observe, “In reality, people read because they want to write. Anyway, reading is a sort of rewriting.”

At least for the many submitters who continue to work on their manuscripts after they’ve already sent them off to an agent or editor, J-P. I can’t even begin to estimate the number of times I’ve heard agents complain over the years about clients who keep sending them a revised page 147 or 236 every few weeks to insert into an already-circulating manuscript. (In case you’re curious about how to pass along subsequent revisions to your agent after you sign, the accepted method is — brace yourselves — to send a whole new copy of the manuscript.)

To return to my larger point, we tend to be hard-core readers, bless our collective heart, which is in and of itself something to consider during present-buying binges. If you’ve been paying attention to even a fraction of the news coming out of the publishing industry lately, you’ll have heard that major publishers across the English-speaking world have been announcing that they’re laying off staff.

“The profession of book-writing,” John Steinbeck once wrote, “makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business.” Can’t imagine why that little snippet should come to mind right now.

Unless anyone out there reading this happens to be a billionaire with a weakness for literature, literally the only thing most of us who write can do to help ameliorate this appalling situation is to get out there and buy some books. Ideally, books by still-living authors who write in our respective book categories.

Why? Well, if you want to live in a world where publishers are eager to buy books like yours, it only makes sense to convey that preference through buying them yourself, right? Perhaps I am intolerant because I come from a family of writers, but I have no patience with aspiring writers who don’t support the market for the kinds of books they write themselves. If aspiring writers won’t buy books in the genres in which they hope eventually to publish, who will?

Well, possibly their FNDGGs, if those writers sit them down and explain clearly and carefully that the only means of convincing bigwigs at publishing houses that it’s profitable to publish a particular type of book is for lots and lots of people to buy that type of book. Not to mention the obvious benefits to the aspiring if buyers go out of their way to purchase books by first-time authors in that category.

Seriously, wouldn’t you be more pleased to receive a good book in your category by a new author than one of those ubiquitous gift books containing quotations about writing that FNDGGs always seem to be stuffing into aspiring writers’ stockings? Because, as Groucho Marx once observed, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

(In the unlikely event that you hadn’t already noticed, on the off chance that anyone reading this one of those perennially epigraph-hunters who can’t get enough of that kind of collection, I’ve been cramming as many inspiring quotes into this post as humanly possible. No charge.)

There are many other excellent reasons to buy recently-released books in the category in which you have chosen to write, of course. Learning who your competition will be, for one, and what they are offering your target audience. Finding out what the agents and editors who habitually work with authors in that category think is good writing, as well as building up a list of who those agents and editors are.

And last but certainly not least, keeping up with what is being published right now, as opposed to five or ten years ago. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard agents and editors complain about aspiring writers’ not being familiar with the current market, as opposed to what was hot ten years ago. Contrary to popular belief, the species or even quality of writing that may have caused your all-time favorite author to ricochet to fame and fortune fifteen or twenty years ago will not necessarily turn heads at agencies and publishing houses today if it did not have an already-established author’s name attached to it.

And the tighter the book market gets, the more likely that is to be true, because an established author already has name recognition with the target market for her next book.

Because the market is ever-changing (and will probably be mutating even more rapidly than usual over the next year or two), it’s vital to keep refreshing one’s understanding of what is in fact current. What attracts an agent or editor today will not necessarily garner praise a year from now — again, unless an author with a proven track record happens to have produced it.

Which is precisely why it’s in your interest to keep abreast of what kind of writing, storyline, structure, etc. has been helping first-time authors in your selected category break into the biz over the last couple of years, not just what the big names have been producing. It’s just too easy for an aspiring writer who doesn’t keep up with his genre’s internal trends to forget whilst hiking the querying-and-submission trail that it honestly does take more courage on the part of an agent to sign a previously unpublished writer than a published one, just as it requires more bravery for an editor to take a chance on a brand-new writer than upon the 17th work by a well-recognized name.

Why? Because “courage,” as playwright Ruth Gordon informed us all, “is like a muscle, it is strengthened by use.”

This is why, in case you were wondering, those of us who have been in the biz for a while cringe when we hear an aspiring writer say, “Well, my book is at least as good as the rest of the junk out there.” The standard against which a new writer’s work is held is not that of the current market for established writers, but considerably above it.

Don’t believe me? Try this little experiment: read five books by first-time authors in your chosen book category that have come out within the last year. (Better yet, buy them, or get your FNDGG to buy them for you.) Then go and take a gander at what the time-honored leaders of the genre have put out lately.

Ask yourself: do they honestly seem to be edited, let alone written, to the same standard?

Another reason to keep an eye on publications by authors new to your chosen category is to gather information for approaching their agents. The logic is a trifle convoluted, but stick with me here.

As I’m sure you’re already aware (I’m fairly certain that I’ve mentioned it within the last few months), the vast majority of books sold to publishers each year in this country are written by the already-published. Why? Well, they have a verifiable history of selling books.

Before you take offense at that, be honest: in the last five years, how often have you bought a book by first-time authors? Not only in your chosen book category, but at all?

Okay, what about ones you don’t know personally, or who haven’t won major awards?

Readers tend to gravitate toward names they know — and bookstores encourage the practice. Unless the author is a celebrity in another medium or a politician, books by new authors are substantially less likely to be placed in a prominent position in a chain bookstore. Certainly, they are less likely to be place face-out on the bookshelf, a placement which increases that probability of being browsed considerably).

Naturally, this results in sales statistics that show very plainly that overall, established authors sell far, far better than new ones.

So — don’t worry; the payoff is coming — your chances of getting picked up by an agent are higher if you already know that particular agent has been successful selling a first-timer like yourself. You know, at any rate, that the agent has been exceptionally brave at least once.

As Helen Keller was apparently wont to say, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” Are you listening, agents?

Because the agent who compulsively sells first novels is something of a rarity, let me once again urge you to draw a firm distinction in your mind between agents whose listings in the standard agents’ guides SAY they are open to queries from previously unpublished writers, and those who have a successful RECENT HISTORY of selling first books. In this market, that takes not only courage, but commitment and talent.

As Abigail Adams seems to have written to her troublemaking husband in 1774, “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” Amen, Abby!

To be fair, agents — the successful ones, anyway — only take on what they’re pretty sure they can sell. As anyone in the industry will tell you at great length after he’s had a few drinks (oh, like it’s accidental that writers’ conferences almost always take place in hotels with bars in them…As Agnes Repplier was prone to say, and even wrote in 1891’s POINTS OF VIEW, “If a man be discreet enough to take to hard drinking in his youth, before his general emptiness is ascertained, his friends invariable credit him with a host of shining qualities which, we are given to understand, lie balked and frustrated by his one unfortunate weakness.”), a first book, unless it is written by a celebrity, is quite a bit harder for an agent to pitch to an editor than a second or third. On average, less than 4% of the fiction published in any given year is by first-time authors.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you. But as the already-quoted George Sand apparently wrote to some friend of hers in 1863, “Let us accept truth, even when it surprises us and alters our views.’” Or, if you prefer Thomas Jefferson, “We must not be afraid to follow the truth, wherever it may lead.”

I’m sure I could find a dozen more quotes on the subject if I really took a spade to the Bartlett’s, but I’m sure you catch my drift.

Speaking of which, I seem to have drifted away from the subject of great gifts for writers, haven’t I ? Here’s one that might help add impetus to your writing career: wouldn’t it be nice if your FNDGG sprung for some really nice (say, 20-pound or heavier) paper for your next spate of submissions?

High-quality paper is worth the investment: pages that don’t wilt as it gets passed from Millicent to Millicent tends to get taken more seriously, believe it or not; it’s not even unheard-of for agents to resubmit manuscripts that they’ve already circulated to other editors.

Or what about a lovely box of those Manilla envelopes we writers are always using to send out short stories and partial manuscripts, not to mention tucking into other Manilla envelopes as SASEs? They’re not very expensive, but I know a lot of writers who would feel that such a gift was awfully darned supportive. Especially if it happened to arrive wrapped up with a roll of stamps.

Oh, you expected me to come up with a quote appropriate for that? Okay, try this one on for size: as Gertrude Stein wrote, “Considering how dangerous everything is, nothing is frightening.”

I think that’s a terrific motto for anyone who has anything to do with the current literary market — aspiring writers, established writers, agents, Millicents, editors, marketers, you name it. Trying to sell a book at any level is absurdly difficult for everyone concerned these days, but hasn’t that always been true, to a certain extent? After all, the vast majority of writers who have landed agents and publishing contracts have had their work rejected dozens upon dozens — if not hundreds upon hundreds — of times over their professional lifetimes. Including yours truly and, in all likelihood, that well-established bigwig who broke into the market twenty years ago. We kept ploughing ahead until the NYC publishing types started to take us seriously.

Maya Angelou wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” And Tallulah Bankhead claimed, “If I had to live my life again, I’d make all the same mistakes — only sooner.”

What on earth do I mean to demonstrate by throwing those two quite unrelated quotes into close proximity? Either that (a) all of the work required to get recognized as a writer is genuinely soul-trying for pretty much everyone who makes it, but you can learn a lot along the way, (b) practically without exception, everyone who already has an agent is deeply, deeply grateful not to have to go through THAT ongoing trauma again, and/or (c) tearing a whole lot of quotes out of context and presenting them to the hapless reader may not be all that useful an exercise, but it doesn’t seem to stop anybody else from doing it, so why should I forbear?

More importantly, what do any of those possibilities have to do with what you might want your FNDGG to give you? Well, for most ultimately commercially successful writers, the road to recognition is long. If that gift-giver wants to find a means to show that s/he believes that you are talented enough that you definitely should keep ploughing ahead, wrapping up some practical aids for you to use along the way is a marvelous mean to express that.

I just mention, FNDGG.

Keep moving forward — and keep up the good work!

PS: any FNDGG intrigued by the Cave Shelf above may find it here.

Let’s talk about this: what books would you give a kid who might grow up to be a writer?

Have you ever read Ray Bradbury’s THE HALLOWEEN TREE? This weekend, as I was about to wrap it as a holiday present for a new young relative of mine — my sister-in-law’s new stepson, to be precise, an avid reader who I hope hasn’t taken to reading my blog just yet — I couldn’t resist dipping into it a little. And mirabile dictu, it is every bit as good as I remembered.

Don’t you just love it when that happens?

In retrospect, I was probably far, far too young when I originally read it — a writer-friend-of-the-family-who-shall-remain-nameless-because-his-heirs-threatened-to-sue-my-publisher-when-I-wrote-about-him sent me the first paperback edition, so I must have been in mid-elementary school when I first cracked the spine, rendering the stuff of both nightmares and pleasure. I remember reading it and reading it for many years before my mother said that my little friends were old enough for me to pass it along to them.

But looking at it again, now — okay, I’ll admit it: rereading it after many years, carefully and without bending pages — I realized that I still remembered entire sentences, even entire paragraphs, of this book by heart. Many’s the time I’ve thought of:

“Oh, strange funny strange,” whispered Tom.

Or, recalled when walking past a graveyard:

The boys ached, listening. The tomb breathed out a sick inhalation of paprika, cinnamon, and powdered camel dung. Somewhere, a mummy dreamed, coughed in its sleep, unraveled a bandage, twitched its dusty tongue and turned over for another thousand-year snooze…

It’s the rhythm that stuck with me, of course, but not only that. Bradbury makes this story sing like the wind and move twice as fast, actually a bit too swiftly for my adult eye today. Look, though, at the marvelous specificity of his imagery: not just fecund ripeness, but breaking out the actual individual spice smells; not just the BOO! of a mummy, but depicting it in action.

This whole book is an exercise in SHOW, DON’T TELL. What a great notion to give it to a kid who might grow up to be a writer, eh?

To be honest, I don’t know if that’s on the horizon for my new young relative: at this point, he’s a science fiction reader, and I’m using THE HALLOWEEN TREE to test the waters for introducing him to fantasy. (If this flies, it’s on to THE FATHER-THING; if it doesn’t, I’ll re-begin more gently with I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC.) At this point, I’m thinking in terms of helping develop his taste as a reader along lines toward which he is already drawn.

That’s not a goal at which anyone should be sneezing, of course; while kids sometimes stumble upon good books by accident, the chances of their becoming lifetime readers is much, much higher if some intelligent adult who loves books takes the effort to place some excellent ones in their path. I was very, very lucky in this respect: my mother, bless her heart, was my junior high school librarian, taking the time to read every single book in the place and get rid of the ones that were poorly written. When kind-hearted illiterates donated mediocre books to the school, she would sneak off to Moe’s in Berkeley to sell them in order to purchase the books that were winning awards — and books that should have. So I come by my urge to help shape young readers’ tastes honestly.

Revisiting that book that any normal adult would have waited until I was five years older to give me, though, got me thinking about the author who led me to THE HALLOWEEN TREE: maybe we writers do have an obligation — or at any rate an opportunity — to influence the generations of writers who will come after us, not only with our own work, but by introducing young readers to the books that influenced us, not just as readers, but as fledgling writers.

Frankly, I don’t think that most schools’ syllabi take this contingency into account — nor, I suspect, can they. Honestly, do you remember being assigned to read a book in elementary or middle school that helped shape you as a writer? Or was it the book you sneaked off your parents’ shelves to read under the covers — or the one that some adult who saw the potential in you made sure was in your Christmas stocking?

Perhaps I’m biased; girls who did not get sent to the principal’s office for trying to give a 5th-grade book report on THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP might conceivably harbor different views on the subject. Glancing back over THE HALLOWEEN TREE now, I have to say that I’m genuinely grateful that an adult writer realized that it might mean a great deal to a kid who had been writing and producing puppet plays since kindergarten.

Plays which, as I recall, often dealt with subject matter every bit as dark as THE HALLOWEEN TREE; I remember with great fondness my first non-puppet play, a second-grade extravaganza where the wicked king and queen who were mean to poor people were eaten by crocodiles while the populace sang and danced for joy.

Let’s just say that the principal got to know my parents really, really well and leave it at that, okay?

As we find ourselves in the midst of a gift-giving season, and since the Author! Author! community is made up of masses of intelligent, thoughtful people who write, I want to open these questions up to all of you. Do you remember an adult giving you a book at an early age that influenced you as a writer? Not just a favorite book, but one that was ultimately formative in some way of your craft? Why did THAT book touch your wee writerly soul more than any other?

Or, to turn the question on its head, if you met a youngster who bid fair to become a writer in your book category, what book(s) would you give him or her? Again, not merely books that might engage a young reader, but ones that might inspire him or her to write — and write books along the lines of yours?

I’m really looking forward to your thoughts on this; I’m all ready to take notes and rush off to the nearest bookstore. The floor is yours.

Oh, and lest I forget: thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for helping develop my sense of rhythm on the printed page. I’m truly grateful for that, sir.

Keep up the good work!